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Posted: Thu Sep 24, 2020 1:29 pm
This is something I've been turning over in my head for a little while.
CORE IDEA: Magic and Super-Science trade places.
Sorcery is real, and everyone knows it. Well, almost everyone knows it: there are people who believe that spellcasting is all mechanical trickery, just as there are people who believe that the world is flat, or hollow, but they make up a vanishingly small part of the population. The advance of science and reason exposed many superstitions for what they were, but there was no shortage of real sorcery waiting to be separated from the false. This did nothing to diminish the role of the physical sciences in the world. Mundane technology is reliable and usually requires less contact with dangerous and amoral beings from outside conventional space and time. As a matter of fact, mundane technology is significantly more reliable than it is in most superheroic worlds: people don't get turned into gods and monsters by falling into vats of chemicals, being electrocuted, or being exposed to radiation. If there is any genetic influence on superpowers, it's far too complicated to be reduced to a single gene that can be mechanically scanned for.
However, there are powers in the universe other than magic, and sciences more advanced than our own. A select few people on earth possess artifacts of a technology they only barely understand how to use. Others have been changed forever, by machines found in ancient ruins or by the deliberate action of extraterrestrial intellects. The rarest few are those who are actually in contact with extraterrestrials, and this contact is always on the extraterrestrial's terms. The world's space programs have found no evidence of intelligent life beyond earth, and those who know the truth keep it to themselves, either to exploit the ignorance of others or because they don't believe a world with enough to worry about already could handle the truth.
THE GOLDEN AGE
The early 20th century saw many discoveries, some more welcome than others. Explorers poked their noses into the most remote and inhospitable corners of the earth and discovered to their shock that they were not as uninhabited as they had assumed. There were immense and monstrous things sleeping fitfully in the dark, things either malevolent or simply incompatible with the human race: Great Ones, Old Things, Dark Gods... call them whatever you want. More fortunate explorers only found the ruins of ancient civilizations, but the secrets in those ruins painted uncomfortably detailed pictures of the mystic god-things sorcerers had already been invoking for centuries. They also presented methods to call on these gods more directly, even as everything else about the ruins screamed that doing so would be a TERRIBLE IDEA. All of this information found its way into academies around the world.
To their credit, most of the sorcerers and academics who studied this information concluded that the mere chance of increased magical power was not worth the risk of exposure to nightmare entities. Then the world went to war, fascists and communists and capitalists and nationalists employing mightier weapons in greater numbers than had ever been seen before, and the war went on, and on. And desperate people whose lives had already been shattered started to re-evaluate what they were willing to do for power.
At the height of the War to End the World, Old Things walked or crawled or oozed across the earth on three continents. They had no interest in the political or strategic goals of their invokers, and they were more likely to deliberately fight each other than anything as inconsequential as a human being, but the death and destruction they caused was still terrible. So was the destruction they suffered: the Old Things were not completely indestructible, and the war was larger than even them. Many of the Old Things were killed by each other, some were banished by the efforts of the bravest sorcerers of the age, and a surprising number of them were destroyed by overwhelming firepower. As powerful as they were, the Old Things were not completely indestructible, and as puny as humans were, they outnumbered the Old Things to a hopeless degree. So did their bombs.
Posted: Thu Sep 24, 2020 5:12 pm
Posted: Wed Sep 30, 2020 5:48 am
THE COLD WAR
Speaking of bombs...
When the fascist governments were crushed, and the Old Things were either killed or driven back to the realms they were called from, the east and west settled into an uneasy peace with the knowledge that if there was another great war, it would be a nuclear one. The new superpowers would have to find more subtle ways to fight each other, and the most valued magic shifted away from being about who could contact the most terrifying monster. A new group was established, the Supernatural Investigation and Governance Network, made up of the most skilled and talented sorcerers and mundane special operatives the west could get on a payroll, some of whom worked for the fascists in the war. SIGN's primary mission was to counter mystical attacks on the west by the communist bloc, but it was a new enemy that challenged them the most.
During the great war, some people looked at the monsters walking the earth and feared the end of the world. Some people eagerly anticipated it. Secret mystic orders that worshipped the Old Things like gods looked forward to the fall of civilization, and the return of the human race to its proper place in the cosmos: cowering, superstitious animals. For humanity to not only survive but (mostly) triumph over the Old Things was an unforgivable blasphemy, and the end of the war left dozens of confused and angry mystics wondering where things had gone wrong.
The secret society that called itself the Decline began with these mystics, most of them fugitives from the fascist powers. Their goal was to reduce human civilization to a new dark age, where science and reason would be abandoned and people would obey the commands of their betters without question. They made heavy use of magic, but not all of their ends were purely magical: The Decline called abominations to earth and made deals with the dark lords of mystic realms, but they also engineered biological weapons and fanned the flames of conflicts they hoped would lead to all-out nuclear war. Their core was always dominated by "true believers," but their lower ranks were full of recruits who found movements for civil rights and racial integration threatening. These foot soldiers found the Decline's stated goal of a return to "the good old days" appealing without really understanding how old the good old days would be. The Decline quickly became SIGN's highest priority enemy, and with this new responsibility SIGN grew in power and influence.
The Decline was most active as a threat when the cold war ran hottest. It may have been that the times when the world was at its most unstable gave the Decline the most opportunities to cause damage, or it may have been that the Decline could most effectively destabilize the governments of the world when it was at its most powerful. It was probably a bit of both. In any case, the Decline got quiet at the end of the cold war. Its leaders were never caught or killed, but they scaled back their operations drastically. This came as a relief to a great many people, but SIGN suddenly found it difficult to justify their enormous budget.
Without a centralized enemy to define itself against, SIGN changed their methods. If a magical threat could come from anywhere, then magical knowledge was dangerous in anyone's hands, and the best way for SIGN to keep order was to keep people uninformed. SIGN today spends as much of their budget on news networks and social media as they do on weapons, with the goal of directing public attention away from things it would be dangerous or inconvenient for them to think about. Despite their efforts, the number of sorcerers in the world today is only increasing, as is the number of people altered by magic.
Posted: Tue Oct 06, 2020 4:42 am
THE STRANGER, part one
The first appearance of one of the Old Things since the great war was five years ago, in the city of Bohemia. Ebrath-Nir, the tree of woe, wrapped itself around an office building and opened its twelve eyes. It began to sing its song, and across Bohemia people fell to their knees and cried. Military aircraft were scrambled immediately, but even under the most optimistic prediction at least half of the city was as good as lost. Then a flying man in a yellow cape appeared, tore out Ebrath-Nir's twelve eyes, and ripped its body to pieces with his bare hands. The stranger flew away without a word of explanation, and although a note was left at the mayor's mansion naming figures involved in the summoning, it said nothing about the stranger himself. With no other name to use, people began referring to him as just that: the Stranger.
This was an immensely frustrating development for SIGN. Some within the network regard it as the day that everything started to go wrong. Not only was the stirring of the tree of woe exactly the sort of supernatural disaster SIGN was created to prevent, not only did it catch them completely unaware, but it was resolved with no input on their part. SIGN had failed to do its job twice in one day, on the biggest possible stage. Worse, the Stranger was here to stay. Whoever he was, he had decided to turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind, and his highest priority was the destruction of any magical conspiracy that would endanger the common people for their own personal gain. The problem was that this was already SIGN's job, and the Stranger didn't respect their authority or understand that the law needed to be applied to some people more strictly than others. The final straw was when the Stranger exposed several high ranking members of the network as worshipers of Belgor the Relentless. He would never trust SIGN again, and they had never trusted him to begin with.
It was the example the Stranger set that caused SIGN the most headaches. At a time when once-secret mystic knowledge was in more hands than ever before, and people all over the world were wondering what to do with it, he acted alone and anonymously. Other people did the same, explorers and adventurers and criminals, hiding their identities and activities from the public. The great game of magic, once played by a privileged few, then by vast organizations, began to shift to individuals from all walks of life.
Posted: Tue Oct 13, 2020 10:00 am
THE STRANGER, part two
Bryan Bierce's earliest strong memory is of crushing a chair leg in his hand as a small child and marveling that the world was so fragile. It was a feeling that stayed with him as he grew older, as he went from orphanage to foster home, and through the school system: either he was much too strong, or everything else was much too weak. His only clues to why that might be were the three books that were found with him as an infant. Unfortunately, they were written in a language he didn't know, and inquiries he made in his youth told him that it was a language nobody else knew, either. It had significant resemblances to certain ancient languages, which suggested that translating it might be possible, but doing so would likely take years of work by a trained professional. Bryan didn't want to leave the books in anyone else's hands for that long, so he pursued linguistics in college and started trying to translate the books himself.
It was slow, difficult going. Even today, Bryan can only understand a fraction of the writing. The books are a set of diaries written by a magician in an empire Bryan had never heard of before, on a planet under a red sun with two moons in the sky. A new kind of magic spreads, worshiping a new and mysterious god. The magic is strong, and the magician prospers. Entire sections of the first book are still too difficult for Bryan to translate, but time passes in the first book, and the writer becomes court magician in the aftermath of some kind of political struggle against people who resist the new magic. There are occasional references to conflicts breaking out in the empire, but he's more interested in his own successes. He has a wife, now, and a child on the way, who he will consecrate to the new god so that his child will be "made greater" as he and the other members of court have been. The end of the first diary concerns the plans for a great festival which will feature a ritual sacrifice.
The second diary is in a completely different language.
The third diary begins in the first language again. The writing is disjointed and difficult to translate, but the empire appears to have fallen apart completely. People laugh and kill each other with their bare hands in the streets of the capital city, and all contact with the outside world is lost. The planet itself is being eaten by... something, or maybe the planet is eating everything that lives on it. Much of the third diary details a desperate spell the writer is crafting to send his infant son somewhere else, anywhere else. The second to last thing in the diary is an apology message directly from the writer to the reader, who he hopes is his son. The last thing in the diary is written in the same language as the second book.
Bryan had a lot of time to think about the contents of the diaries while he worked on translating them. He'd always wondered what his birth parents were like, but finding out that they'd helped to destroy a world out of greed and shortsightedness was... well, it was disappointing, to say the least. It was also galvanizing. Every day, people on earth abused dangerous magic without a thought for the harm to anyone else. What if the earth was destroyed the same way Bryan's birth world had been? Some people said it had almost happened already, during the great war. And those people didn't know, like Bryan did, that it had already happened once before. Someone had to make sure it didn't happen again. Someone would make sure. Bryan graduated from college and the Stranger quietly began his work.
Some people in SIGN would be amused to learn that the Stranger also considered his fight with Ebrath-Nir a failure. An entire city was put at risk because he couldn't identify the magicians responsible for it in time. The yellow cape he put on was a sudden affectation he can't really explain, even to himself. It just felt--right. He's added to it since then, to make it a more distinctive costume, but he prefers to avoid public attention. This makes it easier for SIGN to paint him as a dangerous menace, and soldiers and police officers have shot him on several occasions. He doesn't mind.
As he grows older and translates more of the diaries, Bryan has developed or discovered other powers in addition to raw physical strength. He isn't a spellcaster, although he knows a good deal about the science of magic. It's more that he finds new ways that the laws of the universe don't apply to him, things he can do if he's insistent enough about doing them. One of them is his ability to destroy just about anything by hitting it hard enough: The Stranger has encountered intangible spirits, endlessly-replicating masses of flesh, and abstract entities that the concept of death barely makes any sense for, and he has killed all of them with his bare hands. Another is that nobody recognizes Bryan as the Stranger, whether in person or through a picture. They see a dark-haired, powerfully built man, handsome in an unremarkable sort of way. The more they think about specific details, the less certain they are of even that general image. Someone trying to remember the color of the Stranger's eyes, for example, might become less and less sure that the face they saw had eyes at all.
Posted: Tue Oct 20, 2020 9:58 am
GRAVEN THE MAGNIFICENT
In a world shaped by magic, who's the greatest magician of them all? It's a big, complicated question, with no consensus answer, but there's one name that shows up on just about everyone's list: Derek Graven, the playboy archmage of Portent City. Creator of the revolutionary Peacekeeper teaching program SIGN uses to train its combat mages. Master of the Ruby Winds of Savyan, the Fourth Eye of Golmegra, the Impenetrable Mail of Rog, and a hundred other lesser spells. It isn't clear if Graven was egotistical enough to start calling himself "the Magnificent," or if he was egotistical enough to hear someone call him that sarcastically and decide it fit him, but the epithet has stuck. Handsome, charming, and rich, he certainly seems to live up to it.
The truth is that Graven doesn't sail through life as smoothly as he appears to. Slow and cautious ritual magic is one thing, but casting spells with the speed and frequency he employs leaves a caster indebted to the entity that is the source of that spell. This is something many magic students are disappointed to learn: wielding magic is not the same as being magic. A magician with the extensive repertoire of Graven the Magnificent needs to appease the desires of a number of often-temperamental spirits, and do so without offending one while satisfying the whims of another.
He walks a similar tightrope in the physical world. He sometimes works with SIGN, but he doesn't work for SIGN, and they make no secret of how much that frustrates them. Graven values his independent status very highly, and his magical power and political connections would make a "hostile takeover" by SIGN difficult, but not impossible. SIGN knows this, and they're always weighing the value of bringing him into the fold against the effort it would take to do so and the loss of goodwill that would result. Complicating matters is the fact that Derek Graven is one of the many people who've followed the Stranger's example and begun using magic openly, even casually. He sympathizes with these new, independent-minded outlaws, but he's positive that they can't stay outside the system forever: sooner or later, SIGN will take back control. He'd like to work out a deal with them that would give them at least some autonomy, but the more he associates with SIGN, the less the "strangers" trust him... and the more he associates with them, the less SIGN trusts him.
Such is the life of Graven the Magnificent, pulled in a dozen directions at once, trying to keep all his plates spinning. You'd think he would be doomed to failure, and he would agree, if not for the simple fact that he is, well, magnificent. Ask anybody.