From the author: Additional information about the setting of the Sundering War series.
The world of Asulon is a dangerous place.
For one thing, the world is locked in the depths of an ice age. The climate is extreme and most of the world is simply uninhabitable to humans. Harsh winters ravage communities even in more temperate regions. Much of the world is forced to simply shut down for several months of each year.
For another, the world is swathed with a potent magical energy called aether. This energy forms naturally across the globe, but it also radiates in overwhelming waves from massive crystalline pillars called nexus. There are only two of these located in the regions the human population has explored, but their effects are powerful and can reach for hundreds of miles. When the aetheric charge in a particular area reaches oversaturation, an aether storm can occur with devastating results.
Aether storms carry the usual dangers of any powerful storm, and far worse besides. One of the most feared effects is the generation of dire beasts. Certain animals caught in a storm absorb the energy and mutate out of control. Turned into massive slavering monsters, they are inevitably berserk and wreak a path of havoc until they can be slain. What causes some to turn dire and not others is not understood by human civilization.
If humanity seems poorly adapted to live in this harsh landscape, that is no coincidence. None of the mortal kinds are native to Asulon. Their ancestors came to this planet nearly five thousand years ago. The stories about where they came from and what it is that drove them to come here are apocryphal and widely varied. The only thing that’s clear is that this exodus was a desperate one. The very name of the world means ‘refuge’ in the oldest tongues.
THE MORTAL KINDS
Humans dominate the center of the western reaches of the landmass they call Kamat. Human civilization is divided into two nations. The regions adjacent to the coast are known as the Kaldori Confederation, while the eastern area in the shadow of the Raunos Mountains belong to the Vael Peldori.
The Kaldori are a loose conglomeration of smaller domains, each one led by a noble known as a Teraphon. A Teraphon’s power within their domain is absolute in theory, but in practice it is sharply delineated by local agreements with town councils. In times of war, the Teraphons come together to elect a Polemarch who acts with dictatorial power until the war is finished. If the war is proceeding poorly, the Teraphons may call for a vote of no confidence demanding that the Polemarch be replaced, though the Terms of Confederation declare the one who calls for the vote may not take the Polemarch’s place.
Vael Peldori is in a time of great tumult. For centuries it was dominated by absolute rulers of the line of Kleon. Local rule was done by governors called Eklektoi, directly empowered by the current ruler. In the wake of a war with the Kaldori that left the economy in ruins, however, the merchant class funded a revolution. Kleon Amaxis was killed and his sole surviving heir fled the country. Now the nation is ruled by the Prosperity Council, an open plutocracy whose seats are auctioned off to the highest bidder every two years.
Humans are not the only type of life that came to Asulon in ancient days. Even within the limited scope of what humanity has explored there are four other types of intelligent life: gruids, faer, koboloi, and the bultun.
The gruids inhabit the fens and bogs north of the human realms. These avians are well-adapted to life here, their long legs allowing them to easily navigate the treacherous ground. Insofar as humans have been able to ascertain, the gruids are organized into clan units of extended families. They are famed for their individual prowess as warriors. Periodically they launch bloody raids into the human lands, stealing masses of goods and retreating back into the wetlands where retribution cannot follow.
The faer live in the deep woods and rainforests south of the human realms, popularly known as Elphyne. They are the only known mortals who can directly interact with aetheric energies, and are theorized to partially exist in the aether themselves. Their physical forms seem to vary wildly: those who have journeyed into Elphyne and returned have reported everything from small figures with wings to towering whipcord-lean creatures with multiple eyes. Reports of their capital city, Nirta Tog, are just as varied. Some describe a living city grown from the trees themselves, while others speak of palaces of ice or underground complexes. Little is known of their social structure: every single faerin encountered has laid claim to a noble title that is their sole form of address, with the most commonly met one -- the Marquis of Thorns -- seeming to take the role of ambassador to humanity.
The koboloi haunt the peaks of the Raunos Mountains. They are small, pale-skinned creatures by report, with the tallest no higher than three feet. Their ears are disproportionately huge, up to a foot long in some cases. They seem to be able tolerate extremes of heat and cold far better than humans. They live in fastnesses carved into the mountain rock, combinations of mines and habitats. These appear to be ruled each by a ‘Maester’, nominally the most accomplished craftsman among them. Items of koboloi craft are indeed incredibly well-made, but their aesthetics are often displeasing to human eyes, lowering their possible value.
The bultun live in the savannah beyond the mountains, and were little more than rumour until recent events. Little is still known of them, save that they are hyenoid and physically imposing. Some reports indicate a matriarchal society. Signs also point to the use of runecraft not completely unlike what humanity possesses, but avoiding the use of elemental spirits by unknown means.
The only intelligences that are native to Asulon are its spirits.
Aetheric entities connected to the elemental substances of the world, spirits are everywhere. Usually, humans cannot detect them. However the idea of such entities was apparently not foreign to the earliest arrivals on the planet. They came with the knowledge of how to locate and utilize the spirits. In this way, the vast aetheric energies of the world become something that can be wielded rather than merely a terrible danger. Unfortunately, for unclear reasons, it seems impossible to communicate directly with spirits. Some believe they lack the intellect, while others believe their minds are simply too alien for it to work.
This binding is accomplished by thaumaturges and runesmiths.
Thaumaturges specialize in the location and study of the spirits. They classify the entities as ‘extropic’ because of their ability to create effects without need to pull energy from another source. A variety of elemental types have been officially detected: air, earth, fire, water, smoke, ice, ooze, magma, lightning, crystal, radiance, and steam. Other forms have been theorized but never confirmed.
In addition to type, thaumaturges give each spirit an Intensity Rating. Extended observation of a spirit and measurement of its activities give an idea of how much aetheric energy the entity is capable of generating. This is reported on a range of 1 to 5, with the scale being logarithmic so that each whole number represents a tenfold increase in measured amplitude. This doesn’t apply an upper limit, but nothing greater than an IR5 spirit has yet been detected.
Runesmiths construct the devices that channel them towards practical effect. A minor IR1 or 2 fire elemental can be used to produce heat reliably and indefinitely. Water elementals provide for plumbing and irrigation. Other products vary widely, including such things as ovens and earthmovers. They also can make focus crystals which, when charged with aetheric energy, can produce a specific effect for a limited time. By far the most storied creations, however, are the towering warmachines known as giganphracts, or phracts for short.
Giganphracts are varied in shape, equipment, and function. They are not a new development. Stories of them date back to ancient times, and some may even have come from other worlds with the first arrivals. One commonality they all share, however, is their three primary components: frame, spirit, and pilot.
Frames range from twenty to forty feet tall. They are made from special treated woods and alloys, inscribed with intricate runes that allow a spirit to connect with and power them. For the vast majority of Ansulon’s history, only very rich nobles could afford the creation and upkeep of a phract and they would be passed down as heirlooms. Some are still made this way, and are commonly known as bespoke phracts. In recent times, however, new mass production techniques have seen cheaper, standardized frames being produced. These are colloquially spoken of as munitions phracts.
Current understanding is that only IR3 or higher spirits have sufficient aetheric ability to power a phract. Thaumaturgists are constantly searching for new ones to source for such purposes. At least with munitions phracts, there is little advantage to a higher-rated spirit: the frame has only been built to channel so much power. Some bespoke frames are specifically designed to operate at higher power levels, however. It is worth noting that binding is not as authoritative as it sounds: the means to force a spirit into service do not exist. For reasons unknown, some choose to bind to a frame and some do not. Even those who do bind are equally selective as to what pilots they will cooperate with, again for opaque reasons of their own.
Pilots for a long time were only selected from members of noble families, as only those families had the frames available. Indeed, the legend of the rise of the Teraphons is that each slew a dire beast to become the ruler of their domain. In modern times, with munitions frames and professional military reforms, pilots are recruited en masse for training. Few who train ever receive the honor of becoming a full-fledged bonded pilot. Those who do are tattooed on their chest with the Final Rune, which closes the command link with the spirit and connects the two. Most are marked by their spirit in the process, showing effects on their eyes, skin, and hair.
Phracts use the same organization in both current Kaldori and Vael Peldori militaries. The lowest rank is Bond-Pilot. Above them, Thunder-Lieutenants command a ‘thunder’ of four phracts. Tempest-Captains command a full ‘tempest’ of three thunders. Tempests are the largest phract-only units: higher ranks command mixed forces of infantry, cavalry, phracts, and artillery.
This particular style of phract is specific to humanity, but each of the nonhuman species has their own take on the same idea.
The koboloi use uhrwerks, elaborate constructions entirely of metal with no spirit incorporated. They are rumored to be powered by aetheric engines that pull directly from ambient levels, but if this is the case the secret to such devices are well protected. Rather than have a single pilot, they are said to be operated by crews of up to a dozen koboloi.
The bultun use eidolons, massive entities runecrafted of stone slabs in the appearance of their creators. They appear to operate independently, with no pilot. The specifics of their operation are unclear to humans, but they are treated with religious reverence among the bultun.
The faer field dryads, towering entities seemingly made of living plant matter. These also seem to lack a pilot.
The gruids are particularly unique. They alone among the mortal kinds have learned how to tame dire beasts and lead them into battle. The djurgohta are those among them entrusted with the handling of these monstrosities, and seem to be treated with a combination of loathing, fear, and respect that has confused humans who have seen it.
The Kaldori and Vael Peldori branches of humanity have been at odds for all of recorded history. Aggressive territorial claims, raiding, and similar outrages have been standard, and often boiled over into open warfare. Indeed, such a war ended two decades ago and left both sides in bad shape with little to show for it.
The economic devastation of the war proved too much for the merchants of Vael Peldori to tolerate, and they overthrew the reigning line of Kleon. Unfortunately for them, however, one of the line escaped the purge. Kleon Cyanea fled across the Raunos Mountains along with those among the Eklektoi of particular loyalty.
There she apparently came into contact and struck a deal with the bultun. She has returned leading an army to reclaim the country, pronouncing herself Stephanos as rightful heir to the throne. In a shocking development, the gathering of teraphons voted to go to war in support of her claim. Rumors still swirl about what concessions Cyanea must have offered to gain their support.