MonstersA monster is the general name given to a viable but dangerous union of an animal and a spirit. Unsuccessful combinations are short lived, and usually result in the animal's (and spirits?) death by combustion, vitrification, freezing, vaporization, dissipation, disintegration, and wide variety of other forms of breakage.
The results of a successful combination vary widely, and can be anything from a mosquito made out of shadow that suck slightly more blood than usual, to a gigantic elephant made of flame that petrifies everything it looks upon. Monsters are generally rare in the world, and most citizens of the Empire will never see one except possibly in an arena. Monsters become more common the closer you are to the Rift. In the lands just outside the Rift monsters are common enough that the WitchHammer orders were founded to combat them.
As a general rule, monsters are terrifying. They do not move like terrestrial creatures, and they radiate fear, terror, and wrongness. The most common reactions to a monster is to cry, run, hide, or simply freeze in place.
WitchesA Witch is the failed and malignant union between a person and a spirit. Generally speaking, union with a spirit is either successful, in which case an Adept is created, or unsuccessful, in which case the person dies terribly. The accepted and well studied unions reliably produce either the first result or the second. However, in some rare cases, or when a union is attempted with a wild and unknown spirit, it is possible that the union fails but not completely so. What is left of such a misfiring is the shattered shell of a mind, shot through with madness, riddled with mutation, and with access to the powers of an Adept. Such flawed but still viable creatures can cause no end of damage.
Witches vary widely in their physical form. Some are dwarfish, with shriveled arms and the legs of lions and a dozen raven wings about their body. Others are immense, with slug like bodies the size of an elephant, and rows of insectile arms. Some witches are strikingly handsome, others are terribly foul. Similarly, the behavior of Witches varies widely. Some will dart into the Frontier lands, kill a single family, and then flee back to the Rift Lands to hide for years. Other Witches will go on mad crusades, traveling ever deeper into the Empire until they are brought down by the massed crossbows of a battalion. Some Witches skulk in the groves and fields, calling shadow hounds to lay siege to a village at night. Some Witches create massive undead constructs out of the leavings of graveyards and then lay waste to a village at noon-day. Some Witches use mutated rats and virulent disease, others bring with them malign spirits, hauntings, and killing dreams.
What all Witch have in common:
- Witches are malignant. Any spark of decency in them was snuffed out by their transformation.
- Second, Witches are cancerous. While their transformation has cost them their sanity and their bodies, it has allowed them access to powers and understanding beyond most common Adepts. They have an innate understanding of spirits, and if given free reign they will endlessly craft and breed additional malignant creatures and servants. Sometimes these creations are meant to rampage and kill, other times they are part of a larger plan. In many cases creating these monsters seems to be just part of a Witches' existence, like eating or sleep is for us.
Third and finally, Witches are deadly. Just as much as the creatures they create, a Witch is a mortal threat. Witches radiate an aura of fear and terror. Their bodies are fast and resilient, and their minds have a mad cunning. A Witch often has a strength out of all proportion to its size, and can be as powerful in the magical arts as any Adept.
WitchHammers (The warriors)The first and most important characteristic of a WitchHammer is bravery, and the ability to directly face supernatural terror. The natural reaction to a Witch or a monster is to run away in stark, raving fear. These creatures give off an aura of fear and utter wrongness. When faced with a monster for the first time, about one in two people will either flee or will be entirely paralyzed with fear. Those that can act will often be hesitant or panicked in their decisions. The WitchHammers have learned to overcome this fear and fight decisively against supernatural foes. For some WitchHammers, this bravery is the residue of dozens of hard-fought battles and a life of grueling challenge. For other WitchHammers, this bravery comes from a fierce dedication to a cause or from some burning drive. For still others, this bravery is merely a symptom of insanity, and an inability to normally process fear or emotion. In any case, every WitchHammer must be brave.
The second characteristic of a WitchHammer is knowledge. Knowledge is the main edge that a WitchHammer has over its foes. By knowing the foe, by memorizing its habits and patterns and tactics and weaknesses, a WitchHammer can emerge victorious over creatures that are far larger and more powerful. Towards this end, generations of WitchHammers have carefully cataloged and shared the knowledge they have gained in battle. By studying the thousands of different types of monsters and their variants, a WitchHammer can hope to emerge victorious. Due to the volume of knowledge collected and needed for the task, the WitchHammers have split their giant corpus into multiple branches of knowledge. Each WitchHammer in a hunting group will usually focus on one branch of knowledge, so that collectively the group will be ready for most threats.
WitchHammer (The books)The collected and collated knowledge of Monsters and Witches is known as the The Hammer of Witches. Confusingly, this is often shortened to simply the "WitchHammer". The full and collected volumes of the WitchHammer weighs several hundred pounds, and copies are usually kept well back from the front lines. WitchHammers on the hunt carry a smaller and more condensed version of this book for reference, and send back notes and updates as they learn new information in the field. This knowledge gives hunters the edge they need to successfully hunt Witches.
WitchHammer TrainingSome WitchHammers are brought up and trained in special academies, before being apprenticed to more experienced WitchHammers in the field. Other WitchHammers volunteer in cities, or are recruited on the Frontier to replace losses sustained while on the hunt. Those who join the WitchHammers are generally tough minded, intelligent, and physically fit.
The WitchHammer WagonThe Wagon is one of the less known but still vital weapons of the WitchHammer's. This oversized and finely constructed vehicle stores the myriad weapons and tools that the WitchHammer's need for their missions. A typical Wagon has iron wheels and an iron barred frame, and is an extremely sturdy (if bumpy) ride. It is constructed to hold hundreds of pounds of equipment, as well as to act as a holdout of last resort in case of attack. A well-stocked wagon also has hundreds of reagents, filters, herbs, and chemicals. When a WitchHammer passes or retires, his equipment is left with the Wagon and becomes part of the communal property. If none of the WitchHammers return from battle, saddened villagers will usually return the forlorn Wagon to the nearest town or WitchHammer academy in order to claim the standing reward.
SpiritsSpirits are creatures that are not of this world. There is an *enormous* amount of variation between Spirits. In general though they are invisible/translucent, can pass through solid matter, and do not perceive or understand the world as we do. They can interact with our world, but have difficulty doing so or understanding how we do so. Spirits do have intelligence, sometimes great intelligence, though their minds do not work as ours do. In many cases men and spirits can exist in the same area without effecting each other or even being aware of each other.
Spirits begin to matter when they gain a physical form or attachment in our world. This typically happens when a spirit is drawn into an animal or a person. This usually requires at least a cautious consent from both parties, and so is rare in nature. Due the alienness of the Spirit, this process is always at least jarring. In cases where there is too much difference between the mind and form of the two beings, they are both destroyed. This can result in sudden incineration, flash freezing, a burst of light, a sudden void, instant or slow disintegration, or a hundred other disasters. If the physical forms survive, there is also the risk that the minds of both beings are gone, shattered into incoherence by the encounter with something so alien. This result just leaves a mindless husk. However! If the spirit belongs to one of the categories that is amenable to the our form and mind, the two beings can both gain by the connection. The spirit gains understanding of our world and a link through which to effect it. The person or animal gains the potential to direct and use the spirit's power. The process of learning to communicate and cooperate can be a long one, but the end result is a person with super natural abilities, otherwise known as an Adept.
AdeptsAn Adept is a person who has successfully joined with a spirit and can begin to make use of its power. Spirits, and hence Adepts, have a wide variety of powers, such as control of wind and fire. Some Adepts go on to accept more than 1 Spirit and gain even more powers, though this process is fraught with risk. Even the best understood joinings have the possibility of destroying a person, and this risk increases as more Spirits become involved. Approximately 1 in 300 people in the Empire is an Adept of one form or another. This number is so low due to the risk involved, and the difficulty/expense/risk of finding an appropriate Spirit and learning how to join with it. Some WitchHammers are Adepts, others are not.
The RiftThe Rift is one of many names given to the magical aberration that dominates the area. Visually, the Rift is a mile wide column of shifting, fluctuating, multi-colored light that stretches from the ground and up into the sky. Imperial astrologers estimate that the Rift is 40 miles tall. Some less favored astrologers claim that the Rift actually infinitely tall, and it is only where the Rift interacts with the ground and air that its colors becomes perceivable to the eye. In any case, the Rift is widely believed to be the source of all spirits and magic in the world. They ebb in and out of the Rift in apparently infinite numbers. For a variety of reasons, this surfeit of magic makes the Rift extremely dangerous to anything nearby. The areas close to the Rift are blasted and lifeless, with plants and animals only gradually occurring a few miles out from the Rift.
The area in a 30 mile radius around the Rift is forbidden ground, and anyone found there is subject to immediate execution. The nearest permanent settlements are the line of forts which guard the border of the Rift lands. The forts exist to keep creatures from leaving the Rift lands, and to keep people from entering them. Over the centuries, many efforts have been made to close or otherwise combat the Rift. These efforts have universally failed. Heroes, bands, armies, and crusades have been launched against the Rift, and the result is always the death, disappearance, or terrible transformation of those who go near the thing. As a result, the Empire has settled on a strategy of containment, cautious exploitation, and careful experimentation with the Rift.
Rift FortsThere are 60 permanent forts around the Rift, each one with a garrison of ~200 men. The forts have high stone walls, and are well armed with ballista, crossbows, and every manner of ranged weapon. No one wants to fight a monster up close. Duty at the forts consists of keeping sight lines clear of brush, killing anyone who tries to cross into the Rift lands, and the occasional terrifying fight against a creature coming from inside the Rift lands. While not to the level of WitchHammers, the guards at the fort do learn to deal with their fear somewhat. Their standard tactic on sighting anything coming from inside the Rift lands is to fill it with bolts at 300 - 500 yards, and then to chop up and incinerate the body. This suffices against 90% of what comes out of the Rift lands.
The FrontierBehind the Rift forts are numerous small settlements which exist to supply and service the forts. This area is dangerous and unpopular, as the forts do not stop everything that comes across the border from the Rift. Spirits, monsters, and Witches all manage to cross the lines on occasion, and any one of these has the potential to wipe out an entire village. As a result, most of the people in the Frontier have been volunteered or are the descendants of volunteers. Politically unpopular or troublesome populations are occasionally moved there to replenish the frontier population, rather than risking loyal subjects of the Empire.
In addition to servicing the forts, there are profitable natural resources in these lands, and some villages are dedicated to harvesting those resources.