9. Creatures of the Aether
The Fey: Nightmare and Daydream
“We can give you all you need. All you have to give up is that little inconvenience called reality.”
-Lord It Is Always Following Behind of Nightmare
“It's a magic sword. Just think about what you could do if you had a magic sword.”
-Lady If I was Strong Enough of Daydream
“And Kuranes reigned thereafter over Ooth-Nargai and all the neighbouring regions of dream, and held his court alternatively in Celephaïs and in the cloud-fashioned Serannian. He reigns there still, and will reign happily forever, though below the cliffs at Innsmouth the channel tides played mockingly with the body of a tramp who had stumbled through the half-deserted village at dawn...”
-H.P. Lovecraft, Celephaïs
Dreams are powerful, and even more so in the Aether, where they take on real form in the Dreamscape. But the Dreamscape has its own predators, who prey upon the minds of the weak, and these are the Fey.
In mortal legends, the Fey may be recalled as the beautiful, fickle and cruel spirits of nature. The Fey of dream have kept the first three aspects, but their lineage has diverged in ancient times from those of the Fey of the Material Fey of Nature, and the Outer Planar Fey of Freedom. They are creatures of the mortal mind, feeding on ideas and emotions. They are able to find the dreams of mortals in the Dreamscape and enter them, taking on a role in the dream as it plays out and, if their power is great enough, even influence the dream to produce a preferred kind of emotion in the mortal.
The Fey of Dream are divided by mortal scholars into dozens of species, castes and natures. To the Fey themselves, however, these matter little: they are able and wiling to change their shapes and their allegiances at any opportune moment. What matters more, to them, is the nature of their power. The Fey feed on emotion, and the more they feed on one feeling, the more their affinity to it increases until, in the end, they are all but unable to invoke or feed on anything else.
The first division of the Fey is into the Wild Fae, the Court Fae and the Dreamlords. The Wild Fae are those who have not found one recurring, enduring dream to latch themselves onto, or who are unwilling to commit themselves to one emotion. They wander the Dreamscape alone or in small nomadic groups and, seek out and participate in any dream they come across. These Fey are almost shapeless, able to take on nearly any form in order to fit into a dream, and they are officers in a dream of war one day, monsters in a nightmare the next, whispering trees in a dream of peace the third.
The Court Fae are part of one of the two Fae Courts, Nightmare or Daydream. They are Fey who lead a more regulated life, with a net of promises, favours and allegiances to other Fey. More importantly, they have chosen a preferred mode of operation and thus have joined one of the many castes of Fey. In Nightmare, the Fey are divided into castes based on the kind of emotion they evoke in mortals whose dreams they feed on, such as the Beansidhe of fear, or the Leanansidhe of lust. In Daydream, they join castes based on the plans and goals they give mortals, such as the Muses of art or the Furies of Revenge.
The Dreamlords are the rarest kind of Fey. They have found a persistent dream, one that does not fade from one night to the next, but one that lives on across many nights. Some are the recurring nightmares of mortals with a trauma they have not overcome, others the enduring dream worlds of the great dreamers that build kingdoms in their minds that they visit again every night. A rare few, perhaps only a handful or a few dozen, are the Lords and Ladies of dreams shared by many mortals, the basic terrors and wishes of all mortalkind.
It is a mistake to believe that the fey of Nightmare only bring unpleasant dreams, and those of Daydream pleasant idleness. Their names do not refer to that.
The Fey of Nightmare, instead, are those who feed on and try to inspire in mortals their deepest, subconscious emotions: fear, lust, hatred. If they ensnare a mortal and make a pact with him, they do not want that mortal conscious. The Fey of Nightmare eject the mortal's mind out of his body, into the Dream, where they keep him permanently imprisoned in the Dream that feeds them. The body is left as a vegetable or, if the Fey is powerful enough to do so, as a puppet that enables them to see and act on the mortal world through its eyes and actions.
The Fey of Daydream feed on desires and plans. While they live in dreams, they only feed on them when they must. Their preferred form of sustenance is conscious or mostly conscious mortals, those who make elaborate plans in their mind, too elaborate to ever succeed. Those who in their daily lives build elaborate fantasies of revenge on a slight provocation, or who dream of works of art they can never achieve. The Fey of Daydream want these mortals to slip just gently over the border of dream, into half-sleep or drug-induced reverie, so they can share their minds and feed on these dreams. Daydream, more so than Nightmare, offers pacts to mortals, promising help in these plans that is never enough to entirely fulfill any ambition, but just enough to further nourish it.
All Fey of Dream, no matter their kind, share a few aspects in common. Firstly, they are all highly charismatic, beautiful and convincing, and able to ensnare weak-willed mortals with only a few words and gestures, if they want to.
Second, unlike the Fey of other planes, those of the Dreamscape have no inborn connection to the raw forces of nature and magic. Their sphere is the mind and even the least among them has some insight into their own, that of others, and the future, which manifests itself as psychic powers of telepathy and clairvoyance. Of course, many old and powerful Fey will study the arcane arts, or make bargains for it, but it does not come easy to them.
Third, they can change their aspect and shape. The Wild Fae, who have never bound themselves, can take on almost any shape they wish, changing their flesh as others change clothes. The Court Fey, as they refine their influence over dreams, lose some of that shapeshifting power as they bind themselves more to certain types of dream and certain roles in them, and the more powerful of them can merely disguise themselves, but not truly change. The Dream Lords, in the end, can only slightly change their faces and the Queens of the Fae Courts are truly locked in one shape for all their existence.
For all their power, however, Fey have a few limitations placed on them. Promises and oaths they make are binding to them. Even being forced to break a promise under magical control robs them of some of their power. Gifts and favours made must almost be returned in kind. And finally, a Fey can never lie directly. Of course, that does not mean they can not twist the truth, tell only half of it or simply remain silent. Similarly, they are masters of twisting their own word and any promise and gift around on itself, so that they will, in the end, almost always get the better out of any bargain, no matter how clever a mortal thinks himself.
They have one other weakness. The Fey are creatures of dreams and minds, illusions and half-truths. There are, however, objects in the world that have a kind of inherent reality to them. Materials that resist. Objects that their magic can not influence or change. Iron is the most famous of these, and the subject of many a legend. The Lords of Fey can twist a thousand wards around them until no fist of man or tooth of beast can touch them, but a single iron-tipped arrow can still slay them. They will stride confidently through the wards of many a mage, but a simple iron-banded door will thwart them. Imprisoning Dream Lords in castles of adamantine at the end of the world, guarded by dragons has proven ineffective to hold them, but steel manacles render them powerless. Iron is not the only one of these materials. Other metals, to a lesser degree, are imbued with similar symbolism. Heavy, unmoving Lead is not well-loved by them, and elemental Earth they fear most of all.
The Departed: Death and the Aether
Maybe on the Prime, there might have been uncertainty as to what happens after death. Not so in the Aether. Everyone in the Aether is familiar with death, and what happens after it.
With the destruction of the Starplane, the souls of the dead can no longer move on to their rightful afterlives. There is no punishment for the wicked, no reward for the faithful. Instead, the spirits of the dead linger on for a while, lucid but almost unable to affect the world. Then they slip into madness, plaguing the living as ghosts, before they lose even that last bit of humanity and become nothing but faint echoes.
These stages are well-known and documented. Less than twenty-four hours after death, usually around the next midnight, the spirit of the departed returns. In this stage, they are mentally quite coherent, in full possession of all their memories and faculties. They are grey and incorporeal, and not able to affect most items in the mortal world except those specially enchanted to do so, but they can still converse with their loved ones, and say their good byes.
The next stage is perhaps the most horrific one for all those involved: over a time of days, the departed's memories slowly begin to vanish. They forget the names of objects, their childhood, the time of day or mathematics, before the decay accelerates and takes away their memories of their loved one's names, their emotions and finally their identities. Some spirits, through extraordinary concentration, meditation exercises and a strong will, can extend this process to weeks or months, but in the end, they all succumb.
What happens next depends, perhaps, on the individual. The spirit turns into a mad, vengeful ghost that acts like a wild beast, almost purely on impulse, guided only by the last shreds of emotion and memory of the deceased's mind. Most turn aggressive and many develop terrible new powers, so that they have to be warded off or destroyed at this stage.
Those who survive this stage slowly begin to lose their cohesion, becoming fainter, wispier, more like shrouds of mist than humanoid shape. In the end, they become the faint echoes that form the essence of the terrible ghost storms and dream echoes that haunt the Deep Aether.
Most cultures have found ways to deal with this brutal reality. The Asha'im have made the binding of spirits the basis of the entire culture. On Spire, the bodies of the dead were for centuries ejected into the Aether with little ceremony, to form what was called the Ghostwall, a labyrinth of dead bodies and vengeful ghosts that surrounded the plane as a first line of defence. On Caligo, the bodies of the dead were displayed openly and the spirits of the dead respected and even revered when they returned, before they were ceremonially destroyed by priests and sacred warriors. On Belamin, wards were placed on the bodies before they were buried, so that the ghosts would remain trapped in the mummified corpses and on Ember, they were burned in the solar fires that would destroy the soul along with the body.
Even these days, no ship or caravan can traverse the Aether without some measure of ghost protection, and orders of Ghost Warriors are as common as worlds, as no world has ever gone without devastating spirit rampages for long. In fact, in Core World Law, the improper burial of a corpse is seen as a crime on the same level as murder.
It is of little surprise then, with death so imminent and visible, that magical elixirs and methods of age-prevention are a flourishing trade like no other. Barely an alchemist has not tried his hand at the philosopher's stone or the peaches of immortality, no necromancer has failed to try and divine the fabled ritual of Lichdom, no artificer has not tried artificially prolonging life. So far, no save and reliable method has been found.
10. Other Planes
The Elemental Planes
“An' there I was, right? Standin' in this cave. Now, it wasn't like any cave we see here, on Bellamin, no Sir. First, there was no gravity, right? So we were all jus' walkin' on the walls. Second, an' that's the important part: all the walls an' floors were made a diamons. Diamons the size o' this here house.”
-”Poor” Rom Margle
“The elemental planes are, fundamentally, not very well suited to life as we know it. They are monolithic places, in the case of the Plane of Earth, quite literally. Places of the utmost extreme. We are all made of water and earth, air and fire and positive energy. But we don't want to be in a plane only made of either of them. They are the building blocks of matter, not matter itself.”
-Shri Paranvakar, Magister of Planar Interrelations, Caligo Polymagic University
“Yes, of course the Elemental Planes are valuable resources. Endless expanses of clear water and fertile soil. Wonderful. But they are a resource we can not reach in any economically viable way. We can all dream of connecting the Evershard directly to the Plane of Water and pumping a few million gallons out into the Aether in order to feed all the hungry masses. But we can't do that. And do you know how many ships return from a trip to the Elemental Aether? Not the Elemental Planes themselves, mind you, just the overlapping regions of the Aether. One in every seventeen. Of course this includes badly prepared adventurers. But the numbers for official trade expeditions aren't much better. And that is without the chance of ending up as arena slaves for some Dao Khan.”
-Lura Moggach, Guild Elderwoman
The Elemental Planes. For many in the Core, they represent a distant, barely understood World. It is a place where a sailor's strangest yarn is set. A place for adventure novellas, not actual life. A place none of them will ever see or interact with.
These Planes are the origin of all matter and energy. Endless expanses of the four atoms and two energies that combine to form everything else: life, death, growth, decay, void and matter. But, and that is important, they represent these things in their purest and most primal form, uncompromising and deadly. All of these Planes will kill all but the hardiest travellers, often in seconds.
Nevertheless, these Planes have their own inhabitants, though these are as extreme as their worlds. The best known groups are the various elementals and genies, and their rulers. The politics of the Elemental Planes are complex, with many more power blocks than just the twenty-six Planes. For one, there are the eight Archomentals, ruler of the four main Elemental races of Earth, Air, Water and Fire, that form the Courts of Elemental Good and Evil. But, more importantly, there are also the four races of Genie, the Dao, Marid, Djinn and Iffrit, who have taken a vested interest in the mortal races, and whose nobles have the magical power to back this interest up.
The Elemental Planes present, essentially, gigantic untapped resources. With endless amounts of water, or soil, or minerals, or heat, many of the problems of the Core Worlds could be solved forever, if those resources would be accessed and controlled. But, and this is the fundamental problem, they lie behind the Elemental Aether, they are deadly, and they are inhabited.
The Guild has tried to establish diplomatic ties with the Noble Genies and the Archomentals, as well as various other factions of the Elemental Planes. The problem with this is, however, that to these endless worlds, the Aether barely matters, except, perhaps, as a means of circumnavigating enemy lines in one of their neverending, titanic wars and schemes. Every day, more elemental soldiers die on the battlefields between earth and air or fire and water than there are people in the Core Worlds. They simply don't have anything of interest to the elemental rulers.
11. A Timeline of Etherworld
A note on timekeeping: years in Etherworld are commonly counted as Before Guild Year (B.G.Y.) and Guild Year (G.Y.)
B.G.Y. ~1000: The Cataclysm. The Starplane is severed, and all contact with the Outer Worlds and their Gods and Powers lost. Consequently, the Strangeness invades the Prime Material. Many great spellcasters give their lives to create new worlds in the Aether for the prime races to inhabit, thus founding the Etherworlds.
B.G.Y. 289: Nathri of the Zatavira tribe attempt to invade the world of Caligo, but they are repelled by the Great Turtle and its followers, the Water Dancers in the Deepmist Battle. The Water Dancers are officially charged with training warriors to defeat any future invasion.
G.Y.0: The guild is founded as its founding fathers find the secrets of the navigation chamber and the Aethersail. The world of Sirnia is colonized by the guild and becomes their headquarter. The first functioning Aethership prototypes are developed.
G.Y. 6: Establishment of the Guild Law, and declaration of the first Core Worlds, Caligo, Belamin and the Empire of Ember. The Guild becomes a major economic and political power.
G.Y. 14-16: The first Nathri wars and founding of the Guild Marines. Skirmishes are fought all over, until the Guild “pacifies” or scatters all the tribes known to live between the Core Worlds, to protect their shipping interests.
G.Y. 21: A way is found into Ashaton for the first time, and contact is made with the Asha'im. Their wealth of mineral resources makes them a prime candidate for joining the Core Worlds.
G.Y. 24: The world of Spire is discovered and accepted as a Border World.
G.Y. 26: The charismatic Malnar Calderon founds the Retrievers, a military order charged with reconquering the Prime Material from the Strangeness. They are charged with finding any masters able to teach techniques able to resist the strangeness, be they martial, magical or otherwise.
G.Y. 28: Spire's application for Core World status is denied. The prickly and warlike inhabitants take the news badly and go to war in the Northern border, attacking Taiden, the homeworld of an influential guild trader that had a hand in denying them. This marks the first and, so far, only instant where one world conquers another, and Taiden is declared a Spirish colony.
G.Y. 31-34: Magnar Calderon calls the Retrievers to arms, beginning the Veil Wars. They cross over into the Border Ethereal and declare war on the strangeness, using magical methods to break into the Prime and battling any creatures met there. They suffer major setbacks, as strange magics destroy their soldiers or drive them mad.
G.Y. 35: Magnar Calderon contacts the Asha'im and contracts a legion of mindless golems from them, warmachines that are immune to magic and madness and thereby can survive on the Prime for a time. The Battle of Twisting Steel follows, and the first, and so far only, bridgehead on the Prime is held and established.
G.Y. 36: Seven months after the Battle of Twisting Steel, something new awakens on the Prime and strikes back at the Retriever's Bridgehead. In the following battle, the golem legion is scattered or destroyed. The effects of the battle echo throughout the Border Ethereal, and many go mad or are forever lost or twisted. Magnar Calderon is never heard of again, and the Retrievers build the Vigil Eternal, their border citadel, on the spot corresponding to their Bridgehead.
G.Y. 39: The Belamin Conclave. Philosophers, priests and shamans from all over the Known Worlds gather in Belamin to discuss their ideas. They found a new philosophy incorporating all of their ideas for a stable society, the Order.
G.Y. 42: As more and more shipping lanes are cut off, the Guild begins Operation Firebreak, a military campaign to eradicate pirates and border world based raiders in the Eastern border. The first prototype guild dreadnoughts are used in this campaign.
G.Y. 47-48: The peasants of Ember rebel against His Azure Brilliance, the Emperor. While the first rebellion is soon crushed, Emberite merchants ask Spire for help. With the assistance of Spirish shock troops, thunder-forged weaponry and, most importantly, basic training, the middle class soon overthrows the Emberite aristocracy. His Azure Brilliance is killed, resulting in the Three Nights, when Embers fires go out. He is hastily replaced by his daughter, and Her Azure Brilliance signs the new constitution, instating a parliament with three chambers, representing the peasantry, merchant class and the old aristocracy.
G.Y. 56: The Faceless Cabal is found to have infiltrated society all over the Known Worlds. Soon thereafter, they are established as a business.
G.Y. 61-69: War of the Tribal coalition. To avenge their losses in the Nathri Wars fifty years prior, sixteen Nathri tribes unite under the Marujama shamans and elect a chief of chief to declare war on the guild and the Known Worlds. Shamans from different tribes pool their knowledge of the Deep Ways and of magic, resulting in a guerilla war that leaves a dozen worlds in ruins and the guild scrambling for control for almost a decade.
G.Y. 87: The Present Day.
12. Ways and powers
Magic, so wizards say, is the fundamental power that pervades all of existence. It is the reason that in some places objects have gravity, while others they don't. Why fire burns, and air can be breathed. It is a power that, at first, seems chaotic, but actually merely follows strict rules that are not apparent to mortals, and that can change massively from one place to another.
It is these underlying patterns wizards study. It takes years of dedicated work, of course, to understand these rules, and of those that do, few then have the willpower necessary to then take control of those forces. For these reasons, and because of the difficulty in finding working magic in the Aether, wizardry is rare.
Sorcery is even rarer. Sorcerous bloodlines, those few that still suggested, were lost to attrition and inbreeding in the years after the Cataclysm. Those few that are still born, however, are amongst the most formidable people in the Aether, able to instinctively feel and control the underlying energies of the worlds.
Since surviving spellbooks from before the Cataclysm are rare and often barely sufficient as a basis for research into post-cataclysmic magic, sorcerers are highly-sought after by magical institutions: their instinctive magic comes pre-adapted to the Aether, and watching sorcerers weave spells can often show a wizard how as-yet unknown magics can be made to work.
The gods are gone. No trace of true divinity has been found since the cataclysm. Many, in these days, doubt that all the ancient stories of mighty beings creating worlds, able to see the future weeks in advance with perfect clarity, wielding magic more powerful than any wizard's and able to be I several places at once were ever more than the escapism of primitives. Beings of such power, that clerics could talk to and demand miracles from seem beyond the believable even in a world of magic. Only very few still believe in the Outer Gods, those entities from the Outer Planes that once existed, and most of those because they still remember, however faintly, the Prime and those deities.
That does not mean faith is dead, however. Mortals, it seems, will put their faith in almost anything that can provide them with power or protection. Elemental Lords, Genie Sovereigns, powerful nature spirits and the Fey are all commonly worshipped in open or secretive cults. Some go so far as to worship the Strangeness, those entities that have destroyed the prime material plane. There are more exotic cults, too, those that dedicate themselves to abstract philosophies until they can draw power from that dedication, or those that worship distant, impersonal deities they know will never answer them directly.
In the end, it all comes down to Faith. And if enough faith gathers in a philosophy or institution, it will bring forth clerics, otherwise ordinary mortals who draw magical powers from their unshakeable faith and devotion to create miracles.
Perhaps there are those out there who truly have special souls. Who are born with some spark others lack, a tiny glowing ember of the fire that was once kindled by the faith of mortals. The Outer Gods, those entities men worshiped in the old days until they grew bloated and almighty on faith, no longer exist. But faith, faith still exists.
Some mortals have a gift for speaking to the hearts of men, whether they have that divine spark or not. Men believe in them. In their ideals, their deeds. Legends accumulate around them in their lifetime. It is believed that they can truly work miracles, that they can not fail. And for some, this becomes true.
Divine Magic does not gather only around clerics, those who devote themselves to an ideal. It also goes to those who are ideals. Some gather religions around themselves, active, true worship, and they become small gods. Others just live their lives in the respect of their peers, almost, but not quite worshiped as gods, and they become Favoured Souls.
Ghosts swarm the world. From the cataclysm, when millions died every day, through the modern times, when all the dead of the many worlds can not pass to their afterlives, ghosts pervade all matter on the Aether. And while they break down and lose their cohesion and memories, they never quite vanish. The essence of ancient and powerful beings still exists in the air people breathe and the soil on which they walk.
Essentia is the base essence of life and existence. It is what remains of a soul when it has decomposed for a thousand years in the Aether. Some spirits are stronger than others, powerful beings that have left shadows of essentia behind.
The users of the Magic of Incarnum are born sensitive to these energies. They sift through the ghostly mist around them, and find these stronger spirits, binding and absorbing them. They were born with the power to learn from these ghosts, to take up some of their memories and skills, the talents of creatures that have been dead for a millennium.
Some say that they are the true heirs of the material plane, taking up the power of its children to take vengeance on the Strangeness. Others call them opportunists, feeding on the energies of the dead for power.
Vast gulfs of time and space, magic and meaning lie between the worlds of the Aether and what scholars call the Shattered Planes, or Outer Worlds. Since the Silver Void, the plane of stars, was destroyed in the catacylsm, faith and souls no longer flow there, and no divine miracles return.
Even though there is no direct link between the divine worlds and the Aether, the Outer Gods are not forgotten: among the immortals and the long-lived of the Aether, they are still remembered, and there are still worshippers surviving.
But strangest of all are those few individuals who have studied the ancient lores and have learned, by obscure magics, to reach across to the Shattered Worlds and contact the Old Gods and their Outsider servants. Deprived of their worshippers, the Outer Gods have become twisted shades of their former selves and near powerless, hungering for even a tiny bit of energy to be leeched from a binder, so that inviting them in becomes a dangerous process.
Of course, for every true binder, there are a hundred impostors, those who pretend to speak the word of long-lost Outer Gods to worshippers desparate for news of their patrons. Many cults were built around these prophets, and most fell to enraged worshippers killing their false leaders.
The Sublime Way
The Ways of the Sword are as varied as the worlds they come from. Scholars say that most schools ultimately trace their way back to nine ancient, ancestral styles, likely hailing from the Prime and widespread before its destruction, but now, so the saying goes, there are as many styles as there are swords.
On the Core Worlds, there are a handful of famous schools:
The Water Dancers of Caligo teach three basic styles, all based on fluid, dancelike steps, reading the opponent and a seamless integration of offence and defence into the same movement. Breaking Wave is a style that focuses on heavy blows, incapacitating an opponent in a single strike. Masters of Water Splitting Stone, as they call these strikes, can punch a hole through metal walls with their bare hands. Unending Flow is a style that focuses on using throws and holds that use an opponent's strength against himself. Biting Wind, finally, is a style that focuses on rapid movement and the supernatural elements of water and allows the practitioner to control and summon the energies of ice and water.
The Wraiths teach a style called Passing Shadow, which focuses on stealth and assassination, and its masters are said to be able to kill a general addressing his troops or an actor on stage without ever being seen.
The Spirians have but a single style, but one they use to perfection: the Iron Soul, a style which teaches the unity of blade, mind and body (the Iron Soul does not allow or teach weaponless combat) as well as the fact that a warrior must always keep his honour and composure. Its masters not only become almost unequal masters of the sword, but also able to shrug of almost any attack, be it mental or physical.
Some warriors who have dedicated themselves to the Order have come up with a style themselves, based on the Order's teachings, which they call The Eye of the Storm. When necessary, these calm warriors turn into true whirlwinds of desruction, facing down several enemies at once without showing a hint of emotion.