The Rise Of The Steam Soul
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Alteres was once a land of magic. Now, it is a land of toil, strife, and smog.

As the largest land mass on Ur, Alteres was always the bastion for the great cities and cultures of the world. Dense forests in the west, high mountains in the north, and vast grasslands over all, Alteres wanted for little in terms of natural resources. Even the fowl marshlands burying the southern islands provided fuel for the common man's fires. Still, it was not any natural splendor that gave rise to the prominence of Alteres, and its capital of Deean. It was the magic.

Magical power was common on Ur, but Alteres always bathed in the deepest and strongest wells of this mysterious power. Deean was initially founded as a home for mages and other magic users, for study, regulation, and most of all, control. Magic users, those few who are not only linked to the flow of magic, but are capable to controlling it, were always figures of power on Ur. In time, they established a single cabal, with branches in each major city. The heart, however, was always on Alteres, in the high spire of Deean.

For a time, the world prospered. The magic users were officially without a direct office, but nothing and nobody of importance operated without them. The mages ran the gamut, between the Pushers who moved and steadied the stones of the cities, to Battlecasters belching fire and summoning wrath-soldiers, to the Weavers, the subtle, mysterious elders, who could put a thumb on the wheel of fate, for a price. Civilization thrived. In theory.

In truth, many had grown resentful and afraid of the massive magics welded by the chosen few. Too many lives snuffed out with the wave of a hand, too many lands laid barren and strange during howling, flashing wars. A sect was founded, The Church of the New Dawn, preaching the evils of magic, and the worth of work, sacrifice, and faith. With its roots in Alteres, it spread and blossomed in every corner of the world. The great spire of Deean, used to the coming and going of cults, was unafraid.

When the war came, the mages seemed almost bored. Sword, shield and flesh could do little against searing blasts of heat, and armies of enslaved goblins. Golems of steel and blood threshed men like wheat, and the skies over the rebel lands turned black and rained thick drops of searing poison. The followers of the New Dawn seemed at a loss. For each tiny victory, for each mage that fell, thousands had to die, and miles of land were left scorched and barren. Spirits started to falter, and in the spire at Deean, plans were drawn up for the surrender of the rebels.

It was then, in the darkest hour, that a lone tinker discovered the secret tie between life and magic. Studying the wounded and the dead, and watching the arts of the mages, Geb the tinker found that, much like blood, magic is kept and generated within the body. It is present in all things, but it is this “internal” magic that allows for the use and manipulation of magics both internal and external. The next logical step was to discover if there was a way to disrupt this internal reservoir.

Geb the tinker came before the bishops of the New Dawn, holding a device of terrible import. Massive, and mounted on the back of a cart, it looked like a heap of scrap, and was initially treated as such. However, Geb knew how to gain the attention of the masses. He wheeled his device to a nearby battlefield. The soldiers watched in amusement, then horror, as the little man wheeled the device before the advancing wave of Golems. They marched forth, mindless and heedless, until Geb pressed a button on the device.

They paused, as if in thought…then fell, broken and disconnected, like puppets with cut strings. The black, churning skies over the battlefield cleared, and for a moment, all who could see stared in awe. The mages were the first to rally. Or try. Reaching inside, they found their powers vanished, or diminished to the point of non-existence. They suddenly found themselves small, frail men, facing a horde of bloodthirsty warriors. Their charms and wards, able to blunt swords and turn flesh to dust, did nothing now to stem the tide of hate-charged death that surged over them.

Geb the tinker, now Lord Geb the Savior, built more devices, working to scale them down to man-portable cannons, a blast searing the magic free of mages, or leaving a summoned creature an insensible heap. The devices could also cleanse the taint of magic from inanimate objects, leaving them near-invincible to the assaults of magic. The mages were pushed back, horrified as they watched the lands scrubbed and bleached free of their lifeblood. Soon, only a few, isolated cabals of magic remained, hidden in places too isolated, inaccessible, or cowed to bother with.

Lord Geb looked at what he had wrought, and despaired. So much blood, so much loss, all because of his intervention. Heedless to the arguments of the New Dawn, that the slaughter would have been worse without the drain-cannons and null-field generators, he sought some way to keep magic from being totally annihilated. He closed himself away, even as forces marched on the great spire of Deean, and worked without sleep to find a way to stop the slaughter.

He found a way to regulate the drain of magic. Instead of a spirit-searing blast that would leave a person drained for all time, he devised a means to “sip” at a being's magical reservoir. This energy was collected, and in time Geb found it could be used to power and control many things. It was by accident that he spilled some of the Aether on to a small, clockwork bird. One of the first devices made by Geb, he had kept it as a good luck charm. As the ghostly Aether swirled and flowed in to the bird, it stirred, then chirped, then started to fly, tweeting and behaving exactly like the sparrow it was shaped after. Hours later, when it finally fell silent, Geb had already devised the Aether Tubes.

By the time he had emerged, the spire of Deean had fallen, the few master mages left rounded up, their energies crippled and useless to defend them from the jeering, howling masses. Geb flew to the bishops, begging for them to stay their hand, to see his new device. The bishops were unwilling, but could not publicly deny the man who had delivered them to victory. The broken mages were held as The Distiller was brought from the depth of the workshop to the city center. The leader of the mages, Cho-Shi, was placed in the device. Geb connected two squat glass tubes to the device, and pushed the lever. With that action, the age of Magic died on Ur.

Geb drained each mage to the core. He then showed how others, regardless of any real magical talent, could be “sipped” from, allowing their reservoir to recover over time. He then showed how the Aether-filled tubes could be removed and fitted to machines and devices, allowing them to function as the mages' summoned horrors did, but at the command of anyone, regardless of talent. It was even found that, depending on the amount of Aether used, a object could be instilled with a “spirit” of sorts, and function much as a living, breathing being, for a time.

The New Dawn enacted the policy of the Null. No man, woman or child was to practice magic without the direct supervision and approval of the Church. All were to be “tapped” on a regular schedule, for the good of all mankind, with those found to be “hording” held as traitors and heretics. The doctrine of the Physical was given to the people. To rely on magic alone was lazy and corrosive to the soul, where as the use of magic in service of the physical was held as the true order. Factories were created to mass-produce Distillers and null-generators, guilds and governments founded to control and regulate the production, and the people.

Research led to the advancement of clockworks, coal and steam power, each allowing the Aether to function more and more as a control device, and not a power source. It was found that, when a being was drained to death, a hard clot of Aether was created. This gem, dubbed a Soul Stone, was delicate, but incredibly powerful. It would not dissipate like Aether, and when instilled in a device, would allow the whole mind of the one drained to inhabit the device. This will could also be removed by damaging the gem, allowing it to be used as a pure control device. The heretic, the criminal, and the subversive were taken and drained to husks, only to rise and serve mankind once again, locked in a hazy dream-state of clanking gears and cold metal.

Geb saw the rising smoke stacks, the blackening skies, and the hollow, suspicious eyes of the people, and despaired. Men rose to great power controlling and regulating the flow of Aether and devices, and grew rich. The common man, however, found himself as little more then another fuel source. With much of the land left strange and wild, people clung to the rapidly swelling cities, toiling in Null Generator plants and factories for pennies, silent to any abuse lest they be replaced by machines…or worse, labeled as rabble-rousers and made in to the very same machines. The pittance given by the Church for their draining was all the money some had. Lost and confused, the Hollow swelled in the city, used as slave labor and energy tanks by the growing lords of industry.

Geb perished by his own hand, his final words carved in his own flesh: “Gods forgive me; I knew not”. His death was re-labeled a murder by the New Dawn, placed on the hands of a magic-sympathetic secret society, then quietly put away. The cities swelled and grew, soon becoming whole worlds unto themselves. Food, water, and light were all created internally, with layers upon layers of city reaching in to the skies. The lords of industry and religion swelled in power, until they surpassed the mages even at their peak. Luxury and extravagance became a game, new wonders constantly being created to keep the interest of the rich and idle.

In the hearts of the cities, man and machine slowly became indistinguishable. Poor ventilation and plumbing left the warrens of man filthy and dim. The factory doors were equipped with time-locks, sealing in the drudging hordes for days at a time, only to release them exhausted, drained, and with a few greasy coins for their suffering. Clockworks roamed, or stood welded or chained to their posts, some little more then shambling ghosts, others stuck in a second death, awake and aware but forced to toil not for pay, but for Aether to keep themselves alive.

In the depths, darkness now reigns. Men go their whole lives never knowing the sun's warmth, the kiss of the evening air. Pale, thin and black-eyed, they keep to themselves, servicing machines whose purpose even their grandfathers do not know. Over all, the priests and the army keep watch, assuring the steady flow of Aether, steam, coal, and obedience. Great pipes drink the oceans dry, conveners eating the mountains hollow. Criminals rule the dark, using Siphon-cannons to drain the unwary, selling the stolen souls to the highest bidder, regulating the ebb and flow of slave labor, and catering to the growing demand for human vice.

Man has grown isolated, the past forgotten under the relentless grind of the present. However, rumors do trickle down to the common man, leaked by press-ganged sailors on trading barges and airships, whispered by line-runners slipping in and out of the prison-city walls. Rumors of places still rich with magic, and at war with the growing, smog-shrouded march of industry. Stories of black, glossy domes growing over and sealing away whole towns, the words “Tomb Lords” mentioned in hushed tones. Tales of the land growing wild and savage with the retreat of man, of monsters and hordes roaming and slaughtering at will.

The clockworks, or “clankers”, suffer the worst. Locked in a station below the Hollow slaves and the few demi-humans allowed in the city, they are property, sentient or not. Most stay in a hazy half-dream, kept docile and confused by raw, poorly processed Aether. Some, however, rise and look around through glass eyes, and question. They wander, taking what they can, stealing what they must, clinging to the few others of their kind who are aware. Some even have memories, but the faces are blurred, the words muffled. Some go mad, and wander the outskirts of the city, “improving” their physical bodies to fill the void in their soul, becoming steaming, lumbering horrors.

The cry comes from every corner of Ur. The clockworks hiss and grind it, man bemoans or praises it, the priests sermonize it, the outsiders debate it. The call reaches to king and beggar, mercenary and monk:

The age of Magic is dead.

The age of Aether has come.

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