In Icosa, just as in our world, magic is incredibly rare and dangerous. The laws and mechanisms behind magic are not well understood, and the most meager breakthroughs in the field often come at the cost of the health, sanity, and lives of many priests and scholars. Due to the mystery surrounding magic, little can be definitively stated on the subject. The self-styled wizards, shamans, and soothsayers of Icosa can agree on one fact and one fact alone: magic was brought to Icosa by the Outsiders themselves, and their works are the ultimate source of all magic.
What is Magic?
In the most basic possible terms, magic, also known as the Mystery, is a force capable of enacting supernatural effects on the mundane world. Its manifestations and effects are extraordinarily diverse. In general, most people of Icosa attribute to magic anything that cannot be explained by what remains of their scientific knowledge. This results in many objects and phenomena being mistakenly labeled as magic, including complex devices created by the hands of mortals with knowledge and skills lost to ages past, such as computers and combustion engines.
Those initiated to the Mystery “knows it when they sees it,” drawing upon a wealth of experience to interpret subtle and even subconscious indicators of magic. For instance, magic is often accompanied by a low, humming sound, an eerie glow, the smell or taste of ozone, and other telltale signs. Some practitioners carry lenses or visors that can detect frequencies of light outside of the visible spectrum; the emission of ultraviolet light is a known signifier of magic.
Many conceive of the Mystery as a force, or urge. Others claim that it is a wave, a particle, or a reaction of some kind. The official position of the Last Church is that magic cannot be placed into any of these categories because it is an utterly unique and fundamental aspect of existence. It is the essence of divinity, and all that remains of the departed Gods.
The most common—though by no means abundant—manifestation of magic is in the form of magic artifacts, or Arcana. Magic is said to be “captured” or “concentrated” in these items, which radiate power and austere antiquity. Virtually all Arcana were created by the Outsiders during the Age of Attendance, as those possessed of the logorrhagic genius required to create or modify works of magic are born perhaps once in a generation.
Some Arcana are puzzlingly trivial, as in the case of Mozo’s Spoon, a utensil that autonomously stirs sugar into one’s tea. But magic is not limited to stirring tea. In fact, it is the most powerful force known to Icosa. Magic can instantly mend wounds, alter weather patterns, invade minds, and more. The most destructive, cataclysmic weapons used in history were created with magic; vast swathes of the world remain uninhabitable to this day due to arcane disasters and wars. Lobia III, in a journal entry translated and quoted in Ryuiwo’s Histories of the Middle Age of Abandonment, Vol. I: 200–313 PD, reflects on her memory of the Dragon’s Egg:
I had attended Mettan before, and I had looked upon the Egg. I was a whelp then, and it seemed to me very large, although it may have grown larger in my memory than it was in fact. It was a sphere of dark, heavy metal with a seam about the middle. It deeply disturbed me, and I dreamt of it for several nights thence. At that time, the House Qoy still ruled Mettan, and they still kept the old ways. They gave offerings to the Egg; they respected the Egg; no one touched the Egg. When the Capolins came to power, they had the idea to dig it all the way out of the ground. Mayhap they hoped to sell it, or they thought it was a weapon. Mayhap it was. I was half-a-hundred miles away. I saw a flash of light and averted my eyes, but my sight has never recovered. Then I saw a black pillar rising, rising, fanning out like a parasol. Mettan is gone now. All of it. Ash in the sky, and grass willn’t grow there. It was many years before I relinquished the hope that my wife had been afield. Not garrisoned at Mettan Keep.Lobia III, 313 PD
Whether terrible or trivial, all magic artifacts are coveted with unparalleled jealousy. They can be status symbols of the highest order, weapons of frightful power, or vehicles of research and reverse-engineering. Organizations of all kinds, from kingdoms, to cults, to the Last Church, invest great shares of their treasuries into contracting specialists to advance their standing in this regard. They hire mercenaries, known as ruiners, to plumb the depths of ancient places in search of magic, scholars and wizards to study and identify magic items, and ailerons to transport them safely from place to place. Civilizations in Icosa sometimes owe their supremacy to the boons of a single item of Arcana, be it an ancient, impenetrable defensive suite or a Hedron fragment that still retains its precognitive abilities.
Those who employ the works of the Outsiders are known by many names—magicians, wizards, sorcerers, shamans, clerics, spellswords, witches—the list continues, but the term “magic-user” will be used henceforth. Many magic-users are members of brotherhoods or churches or employed by kings and warlords. Neophytes train to interpret the subtle aspects of magic and maintain important pieces of Arcana—cleaning them, adjusting coolant levels, and other essential activities—while masters conduct research to try to make the Mystery a bit less mysterious. Other magic-users are free agents, selling the services of their artifacts or using magic power to strongarm their way to riches.
Though controversial, it bears mentioning that some individuals claim to have innate magical abilities, whether through exposure to the Curse or through alleged divine blessing. Although most still give credence to these claims, the belief that an individual other than an ordained priest can possess innate magical ability is one of the heresies of the Last Church. In areas steeped in the Church’s influence, wizards and sorcerers are harshly persecuted. The author makes no claim on either position, and rather urges the reader to treat all magic-users with caution and suspicion.
Magic in the World
Magic appears in other forms besides artifacts and wandering wizards. In many traditions of the Mystery, certain places, times, and even concepts are said to be magical. For instance, artifacts capable of detecting magic have verified that magic can be concentrated in certain locations. Since magic tends to radiate from Arcana, the environment surrounding a large or powerful artifact often “absorbs” some of the magic and begins to take on mystical characteristics. This effect is particularly pronounced in enclosed spaces, such as in the subterranean ruins of the ancient city of Piyrce, suggesting that magical radiation can be contained by certain materials.
Research conducted in 897 PD by Trior the Small-headed, an Accursed spelldoctor, concluded that a certain amount of magic is diffusely present in a nearly uniform concentration throughout the world. This theory is known as the background magic theory. Its practical implications are still being realized, but promising research is being conducted regarding capturing the diffuse magic in order to recharge existing Arcana.
The day of the week on which the Fragments pass through the sky (Friday in Iurd) are considered to be especially sacred (by the Last Church) or cursed (by certain wizards). This is because the presence of the Fragments in the heavens exerts bizarre and unpredictable effects on items of Arcana, causing them to malfunction or sometimes overperform. In the holy texts of the Last Church, the Fragments are actually the Body of a Hedron named Stone Knife that sacrificed itself to absolve the sins of humanity. No wizard alive agrees with this interpretation, but each has their own story of what the Fragments actually are.
The numbers four, six, ten, twelve, and especially twenty are held sacred by all who keep the old ways of the Outsiders. In deiology, these numbers are associated with the orders of the Hedrons, Gods of Gods, the most powerful of all Outsiders. Conversely, the number eight is reviled by holy men and certain other sects of magic-users, bearing an association with some unspeakably treacherous and abhorrent foe of the Outsiders in the impossibly distant past. The amputation of one’s thumbs is one of the punishments the Last Church inflicts upon blasphemers and heretics—in addition to its obvious horror, the punishment also leaves the penitent with a number of fingers equal to the Evil Number.
Dangers of Magic
In spite of the incredible power of magic to change the world for the better—increasing agricultural yields, disseminating information through thin air, healing diseases—many Icosans fear magic and avoid magic-users as a matter of course. They cannot be blamed for doing so. For all of its miracles, magic is extraordinarily dangerous, and those who wield it are rather more likely to be a deranged warlord than a helpful shaman. Aside from an aversion to being disintegrated, detonated, or transfigurated, some fear magic for another reason.
There are some who say that magic and the Curse are somehow related. The nature of this relationship varies depending on who you ask, but the common thread that runs through them all is the idea that exposure to magic can cause the Curse. Proponents of this belief call to witness the deformed visages of most magic-users; indeed, most wizards show some telltale sign of the Curse, be it translucent skin, an extra finger, or compound eyes. They also point to the increased rate of Accursed babies born to those who settle near ancient ruins and other bastions of magic. In addition, there is some documentation of individuals temporarily exhibiting symptoms of the Curse after traveling through areas known to be steeped in magic—fatigue, weakness, hair loss, burns, nausea, and bloody urine.
There are many who do not buy into this theory—most notably the Last Church, which has designated it a heresy. The common view is that the Curse represents the judgement of the Gods. It is bestowed punitively upon individuals with sin in their hearts; that is, those who have committed a sin, those who intend to commit a sin, or those who have inherited an outstanding sin from a previous life or a family member. Any correlation between those who come into contact with magic and those who contract the Curse, says the Church, is a logical outcome of the simple fact that the Outsiders abhor the mortal who trespasses in their sacred places or presumes to wield their holy works. Only ordained clerics enjoy the divine leave to study, worship, and use magic to further the ends of the divine. As such, they claim, they are immune to the Curse—any Cursed priest is not a true priest. The author notes, without comment, that the priests of the Last Church are famous for hiding their skin beneath masks and heavy robes of lead.