Background for another idea. Comments?
The World of Heritage
The principle difference between the world of Heritage and our own is the presence of an additional force – magic – that infuses the universe. Some creatures in the universe have evolved to a point where they can draw on the magic field to exist (dragons) or exist solely as creatures of magic (elves). When uncontrolled, magic produces strange, terrifying and seemingly random events. By the time of the series, human magicians have learned enough about magic to be able to control it, at least to some degree.
Magic touches every human in the Heritage universe, but only a relative handful have the power to actually manipulate the magic field directly. Those humans are known as Mages who snap into their powers, normally when they hit puberty. Once discovered, mages have to work hard to learn to control their powers, as well as uncovering what aspect of magic they will specialise in if they seek further training. A fully-trained mage is known as a Wizard; a mage who (accidentally or otherwise) boosted his powers beyond their natural limit is known as a Sorcerer. Sorcerers, because they channel magic through their brains, are permanently on the verge of madness.
Because the magic is woven into every aspect of the universe, it is possible for mages to use certain words to manipulate magic. These words are called Incanta and they are used to form Incantations, effectively complete spells. (This isn’t unlike very basic computer programming, but there is little room for mistakes.) Some of the most scientifically-minded wizards have worked out individual letters of the magical alphabet – Incants – that they can use to build up magical spells from scratch. The most powerful wizards can shape and direct magic without needing to know or build spells, but this tends to cause problems, not least losing control and inviting madness. And a powerful wizard can be tied up in knots by a weaker opponent who knows what he’s doing.
In addition to this, many natural items have magical properties. Human blood, for example, can be used to seal oaths and marriages, or as part of the foulest rites carried out by depraved sorcerers and necromancers. The body of a dragon can become a source for countless magical spells; the hide can repel charms and curses, the blood can produce poisonous gas and the teeth can produce homunculi, creatures that can be bent to a sorcerer’s will. More tastefully, certain herbs and spices have magical propitiates that can be tapped by a wizard. There are any number of researchers working to push back the boundaries of knowledge, although experimenting can be dangerous.
It is also possible to create magical artefacts that can be used by anyone, even if they do not have enough magic in them to become a mage. Some of these artefacts are very old and powerful, with legends that actually serve (at least to some degree) to further empower them. Others are very basic and can be created by almost any mage. The important detail about artefacts is that anyone can use them, unless the artefacts require a spark from a mage or have simply been designed for one person alone. The Sword of the Realm, for example, can only be used by someone with the true bloodline of the Royal Family of Avalon. No others need apply; it is generally believe that any attempt to alter the magic woven into the sword would prove fatal, or destroy the sword in the process.
Originally (back before the start of recorded history) mages would experiment on their own, learning through the school of hard knocks. This tended to mean that magic knowledge was discovered, lost and rediscovered, probably several times at once. Worse, because unwary magicians had a tendency to slip into sorcery (and the resulting insanity) it was rare for any magicians to actually cooperate in sharing knowledge and discovering the limits and rules of magic.
Eventually (one thousand years before the story) Grayson the Sane became the first person to develop sorcery without the consequent insanity. There are so many legends around him that it is difficult to say with any certainty what is true and what isn’t, but the generally accepted version is that Grayson showed his powers to a group of newly-discovered mages and offered to teach them what he knew, in exchange for their help in forming a college of magic. Eventually, the fame of the Grayson Academy spread throughout the world and most mages attempted to learn from their elders, rather than experimenting on their own.
Unsurprisingly, the development of a generally-accepted theory of human magic led to violence between humanity and many of the other races. They had terrorised humanity since the dawn of time and found that humanity’s discovery of the underlying laws of magic gave them an unfair advantage over many of the magical creatures. The great wars raged for nearly two hundred years – more a series of endless skirmishes and pogroms rather than outright fighting – until rough borders were agreed between humanity and many magical creatures. Violence didn’t really stop – there were several raids in the future between Orcs and humanity – but it was minimised. The golden age of humanity was about to begin.
As new kingdoms and other political entities came into existence, the unity envisaged by Grayson was eventually shattered. The Grayson Academy was duplicated by other powers, with the net result that a series of alternate magical schools were created. By the time of the story, Grayson is merely the first among equals – not that it sees it that way, of course.
The Kingdom of Avalon is known as the Land of the Three Rivers, simply because it is bisected by the Shalott River that runs down from the Craggy Mountains and splits into two new rivers at Shalott itself. Geographically, the Kingdom is made up of the Eastern Marches, Tardif’s Howe and the White Island, which, despite the name, isn’t so much an island as another part of the same continent. Out to sea, there are the Seven Sisters, seven islands that were originally claimed by a previous monarch and gifted to his seven sisters, hence the name. Politically speaking, the Seven Sisters maintain a precarious autonomy within the Kingdom, largely because they produce and operate most of the shipping in the Kingdom.
Tintagel City serves as the nation’s capital, on the border between Tardif’s Howe and the Wild Ocean, where the White Island can be seen. It is the largest city on the continent, according to the King, centred around Tintagel Castle. Perched on a rock, guarded by sword and sorcery alike, the Castle is believed to be impenetrable. Only treachery succeeded in banishing the last King from his throne.
Currently, King Rufus the Bold (aka King Rufus the Fat, as his braver subjects call him) is the ruler of Avalon. Rufus was actually second in line to the throne, but – showing a serpentine cunning – he backed the great nobles against his brother when his brother sought to bring them into line and then turned on the nobles as soon as he was on the throne. His brother either fled or was executed; no one knows for sure except Rufus and asking him is a good way to get one’s head chopped off. Rufus is not a particularly good person, but he is surprisingly popular in parts of the Eastern Marches as he brought the great nobles to heel after taking the throne. Like his brother (and everyone else in the royal line) Rufus has an aptitude for magic, but isn’t really inclined to develop his powers too far. When magic is required, he calls upon his Court Wizard.
Below Rufus, there are the seven Great Barons (four from the Marches, two from the Howe, one from the White Island) who control vast estates and lands within the Kingdom. In previous years, the Barons grew over-mighty and attempted to bully the ruling monarch, King Hadrian. Their power was savagely pruned back by Hadrian’s successor, who built a powerful army and used it against the Barons, but he was then deposed by Rufus before he could secure his throne. The Barons resent their sudden loss of effective power, yet they know better than to cross Rufus. He’s the one with the army.
Under the Barons, there are a number of aristocrats. Some have lands of their own, and effective power; some are positioned within the army or the royal bureaucracy; some have vast wealth…and some are effectively penniless, merely clinging onto their aristocratic names. The titles are not so important as the actual land, position and money possessed by any given aristocrat. A handful of middle-class merchants, having made themselves staggeringly wealthy, have married into the quality, merging vast fortunes with old titles.
While the King and the Barons control most of the land, the thriving merchant community has cornered the market on trade with the rest of the world, as well as transporting goods from Avalon outside the Kingdom. Much of the Kingdom’s income comes from taxes on the merchants, although the King has steadily been increasing taxes as he seeks to transform his capital city into a new wonder of the world. There are also teachers seeking to teach writing, accountancy and other knowledge to the inquiring mind, but this is greeted with some concern by the aristocrats. Peasants who can read and write may not be so respectful to their betters.
At the bottom of the pile are the peasants and slaves. Their lot tends to vary from place to place; in the Eastern Marches, many of them are bound to great estates; on the White Island, they have much more freedom of choice. Slavery is legal in Avalon; some of the Barons have been using slaves to work their fields, pushing the peasants off the land (or forcing them to accept servitude themselves.) Most middle-class and higher people have at least one slave working for them. Certain kinds of criminals, if caught, are enslaved and sent to work in the minds.
The main exception to the rules of this society, where social mobility is very slow, if at all, is in those with magical talent. Mages who are discovered are generally offered a chance to go to the nearest magic academy or apprentice with a wizard; refusing to follow either path may result in social exclusion or death, as an untrained mage can be dangerous to have around. Those commoners who accept training have their fees paid by wealthy patrons, under an agreement to work for the patrons once graduated; unfortunately, they can suffer problems fitting in to a school that is mostly for children of well-born (or at least wealthy) parents.
A secondary exception are the clerks. They make up the civil service that keeps the Kingdom working properly, often recruited from promising lower-class students.
One important aspect of the world, which links into the magic field, is that properly sworn oaths are more than just legally binding. Deliberately failing to keep an oath, once properly sworn on blood, can have disastrous personal consequences. Sometimes, it brings immediate death; sometimes it brings disgrace and a life spent as a hideous warning. Unless the oaths are properly sworn, the consequences may not follow immediately, or they may not take an understandable shape. There are mysteries that even the most powerful sorcerers refuse to touch, mysteries that lead all the way back to the time of legends, when the world was born out of red fire.
The only known way of avoiding those consequences – or the obligations that go with other oaths – involve using magic to travel to a world with less magic, where the oaths are no longer enforced. This King and the High Sorcerers know about the existence of our world and many others, some much more dangerous than ours, but this knowledge is carefully concealed. There is no reason why our technology wouldn’t work in Avalon and it would upset the fragile balance of power quite badly.
This world doesn’t really have monotheist or polytheist religions, although it may develop the latter in several thousand years. Instead, there is a general belief that the universe is guarded by elementals, each one of whom represents a different part of nature. These entities are never named directly, creating a somewhat vague pattern that spreads outside the borders of any given state, unless called upon by sorcerers. Sometimes spells invoking them work perfectly, sometimes they go badly out of control. Most sorcerers try to avoid using them for fear of the consequences.
However, a different form of worship exists along the border with wilder lands, where wild magic still thrives. Few dare to call magical creatures by name; the Faerie are always called the Fair Folk, for fear of giving offense.
In Avalon, most mages are trained at Jude’s Thaumatology Academy, on the edge of the Craggy Mountains.