On the cobbled gatepost, there sat a skull.
A human skull, set in a divot midst the stones. Brown and crusted. A fresh wreath of dried daisy pixies, their heads torn off, crowned it. A lump of clay was tied in its gaping jaw, traced with runes.
On the road, two Ward Rangers stared at it from horseback. One spat a gob of pepperelle juice, non-affectual. "Well," he said, thumbing another wad of chew. "What you bet this is her place?" He nodded past the gate, over the planted lawn budded with cabbage and broccoli. There, surrounded by blooming mock orange, squatted a stone cottage. A deflated frog was nailed to the rune-daubed door. Flies buzzed thickly beside.
Nearby, a boy in grimy knickerbockers passed. He pushed a wheelbarrow covered in tarp. "Hey, lad," one Ranger called. "This old Nan's place?"
The boy nodded. He heaved hurriedly forward with the barrow.
"Okay, thanks lad."
The kid hurried on. A bit of dirty tarp flapped in the summer wind. "People here are weird," muttered the ranger, watching him.
The other Ranger, a woman with a peachy blond buzzcut, shook her head. She dismounted. "Come on then," she said, weary. "Let's see what nan's got to say about… " she waved a hand at the village square, behind them, where a great woven twiggy shape loomed, taller than the surrounding fir trees. "That," she said.The gate creaked. Their riding boots squished through the muddy garden. They knocked, just beside the toad and the mud-drawn symbols. The Rangers met eyes, dubious.
They waited. A mock orange pixie, sweetly white and tittering, gently assaulted the man's earlobe. He swatted it away. In the distance, a raven croaked.
"Come on. Is she there or not?" mused the woman. She knocked again, scratched her insect-bitten neck. "Bollocks. There's no end of flies."
"Maybe she's hard of hearing," chewed the man.
She harrumphed, raised a fist to knock again.
The door jerked open.
"Uh." The blonde Ranger shut her mouth, politely clasped her hands. "Good day." They both smiled determinedly, but winced: a rank aura of pickling and rancid butter wafted from within.
"Hallo," said the hunched woman in the door. She grinned, loosing a liver-y breath and a glimpse of three black teeth. "Ah, Ranyers! Ooh, would ye look at te two of ye? So smart, in yer little ridin' capes n' hoods." She drawled in a thickly pastoral Awnish accent, pricking at the nearer ranger's grey hem.
The Rangers, their navy summer uniforms stained with sweat and dust, smiled politely. "Old Nan Dagne, I presume?" said the man, chewing, extending a hand. Old Nan gripped it softly in bony fingers, shook. A bit of ash came off on the Ranger's glove.
"Ja, ja," Nan said. "Would ye care te come in? Have a bit o' kraut n' sour cream on a hot day?" She gestured into the cottage. It was dark and moistly hot, within. Some things, herbs or pheasants or coneys, hung swaying in the dim, backlit by a greasy peat fire, lit despite the summer's heat.
"No, thank you, Nan. That won't be necessary. We only have some quick questions, if you'd oblige us," said the blonde Ranger, hurriedly.
"Oh o' course," said Nan. She passively smoothed her filthy paisley apron. "So good o' ye te sheck on te old folk. Sush good little Ranyers."
"Listen, Nan," said the chewer. "Would ya happen to know anything about that?" He pointed back, towards the square and the woven form of twigs.
"Oh, ja," smiled Nan, again revealing those three teeth. The Rangers subtly averted their gaze. "Te effigy! A very happy old tradition. Part of te majstång. "
"The midsomer festival?"
"Can you elaborate? You burn it, right?"
Nan Dagne nodded. "We burn him, and burn away all te ills of yesteryear. And his ashes fertilize te fields." She grinned wickedly, pointed at the blonde ranger's midriff. "And te young ladies, eh?" She nodded knowingly.
The Ranger glared at her, stepped back once. "Okay, fine," she said. "That's all you burn? Just a wicker man?"
"Ja," said Nan, confusedly. "What else would we burn?"
"What about that skull?" said the man, pointing back. "Did you burn him?"
"No?" said Nan. "He is pleased to be dere."
The Rangers blinked awhile. Old Nan mugged at them, toothlessly.
"Nan," said the blonde. "Would you mind terribly if some of us from the Fort attended your Midsomer festivities?"
"Not at all!"
"Uh, grand. Wonderful."
They all stood. Nan mugged all the while.
"We'll be off, then," said the Ranger woman, as last, turning faster than usual.
Off down the path, swatting at pixies and the blizzard of flies which had detached from Nan's open door. They stepped into their stirrups, flicked the reins, and departed the little hamlet. They left, looking often back at what loomed at the center of town. Over the peaked shingled rooftops and squat stone chimneys: A giant. A giant woven from willow, with great antlers, adorned with all the flowers of summer.
"Bloody impossible to tell what they're up to," muttered the chewing man. "Even when it's right bloody there." He spat, inches from the flinching knickerbockered boy and the wheelbarrow as they approached him.
"Quite. Right. These neosorcerors are getting more brazen. Everything's out in the open, and you can't even see it."
They tittered to themselves, capes flapping in the summer wind. They overtook the muddy boy, gossiping all the while.
The boy with the barrow, and his covered load of carven, human bones.
Out at sea, there hung a black ship.
A barque with a glistening tar-black hull and furled sails of luxuriant burgundy. Anthracite smoke billowed from triple stacks amidships, swathing the craft in a dark shawl amidst the pale ocean mist.
At shore, behind an old hilltop ruin overlooking a slimy stone moorage, huddled children in down coats. They shivered in the chill drizzle, peered over mossy stones, eyes fixed on the ship.
"Help me up!" squeaked a tiny voice. Someone hoisted a sweater-clad mouse pup, small and fat as a football, up onto the wall. "Wow!" he wheedled.
The eldest child, a serious redheaded girl, nodded knowingly. "Aye. And you lot said it wouldn't come. I told you: a've seen it before. Her ship, with her red sails."
"The Sorceress!" cried the mouse. The other children held fingers to their lips, hushing him. "Quiet, Dempsey."
"Look, look," said the pup, quieter. "There's a little boat lowering down."
There was: A long shuttle boat, similarly black, had just put out oars. It started towards the wave-licked moorage, oars heaving fast as a water-strider over the lapping sea. From its stern fluttered a curling, burgundy banderole marked with runes of silver thread.
"Who are they?" said a shivering boy. He pointed a grubby finger at the moorage, where an entourage of folk in black suits and flapping fur and broadcloth cloaks had appeared to greet the ship, battered by the wind. One and all, they wore silver, gold, and alabaster masks under their long hoods. At their lead, first on the dock, stood a man haloed by wind-whipped silken black hair. Glittering rings encrusted his clasped, satin-gloved hands.
"Aristos, Galder. See their masks? Only aristos wear them."
"Wow," said the boy, mouth agape.
The shuttle neared. The oars withdrew. Attendants, clad in rubber jumpsuits and sack hoods, leapt to the pier and hauled the craft to dock with stout ropes. They tied it off and lowered a gangplank.
Across, shielded by umbrella-wielding attendants, came a mismatched pair. First, an impossibly tall woman in crisp black. An dark veil hood and cherry-red streamers of hair framed her onyx, sneering mask. She stepped onto the dock. All bowed, save the ring-fingered man, who shook her red-gloved hand. At the sight of her, the children gasped. Someone shushed the pup.
Next among the pair came a mask-less woman. A small presence, beside the towering lead. She too wore formal black, a split-sleeve frock coat, but was otherwise austere and unadorned; with short shiny hair and no jewels. She stood, naked hands clasped, nodding primly to the entourage.
"Who is she?" squeaked the mouse, too loud. His thin voice cut clearly through the wind. The children all hushed him again, but too late: The mask-less woman flicked a glance towards their wall. The kids ducked for cover. Someone yanked the mouse down and covered his snout.
The eldest girl pressed a finger to her lips, for subdued conversation gained, soft over the wind. The entourage was approaching via the narrow, winding stone path up the hill. It abutted the old wall's edge.
Pained, horrified expressions passed over the other children's faces. Someone mouthed, "oh no."
Footsteps. Hard heels on mossy stone. Shadows passed round the wall, and flapping cloaks and tails of coats rounded too. The masked folk spoke softly, with some amusement in their tone, in a language unknown.
They paid no notice to the children, save the maskless one. She came last, and, lip curled in amusement, winked at them. One long-fingered, deeply scarred hand waved, passively, in greeting.
Dumbstruck, Galder waived back.
The Sorceress and her entourage departed, laughing and mumbling in forgotten words.
"Oh, I've pissed meself," whined Dempsey, the pup.
"Serves you right," said a thin, pimply boy. "Thank luck the Sorceress didn't see! You almost got us killed."
"Who was that last lady?" said Galder. "She seemed nice."
Everyone looked to the eldest. She beheld them, absolutely pale.
"What? Tell us, Ivy." they demanded of her.
"You d-dolts," stammered Ivy. "The woman with the red hair and the mask, that was the Duchess of Felance. I've seen her in the papers. It wasn't the Sorceress."
"W-what?" said Galder. "Which one was she, then?"
"It's obvious! Didn't you see her hands?" said Ivy.
"Oh my. She waved right at us."
"Galder waved back!" said the pup.
"I'm sorry," sniffled Galder. "I didn't know it was her."
"That's how they get you, Sorcerers, says my mum," said Ivy, seriously. "You never know, at all."
Neosorcery isn't illegal.
It is, after all, merely the study and application of ancient technology; no more illegal than learning Ancient Nor or building scale models of antique aqueducts. The study of ancient writing systems and irrigation, however, doesn't involve chopping people up, brewing up monsters, and dabbling in arts that long ago ushered in a Dark Age for all mankind.
Consequently, neosorcery does tend to be illegal. For it will, as a learner shifts from tantalizing theory into debauched practice, come to demand steep costs. Costs that mount without fail into the most abominable of crimes.
The Coast is a fertile land. A land littered with moldering carcasses of countless empires centuries gone. Kingdoms, dominions, and hegemonies, fatted once, one and all, by powers long ago unveiled by the dead Nor. The Nor, who drew them from the depths of physics and biology by methods now lost. The Nor, who with their arts brought doom to all the world, burning it, its universe entire, down to a tattered scrap of coastline: our tiny Coast, abutted by a wilder Otherworld that ever threatens to consume it.
The Nor, whose science we call now sorcery. Whose great corpse of knowledge fed all the corrupted many minds to come. A great bloat of knowledge that nourished a two millennia Dark Age and all the horrid powers that rose, fell, and died along the way, creating, like the Nor, fertile lands for those still yet to come.
And now, in these industrial, fragile, critical days, wherein Humanity has finally reached the brink of freedom from both the encroaching Other and its own sorcerous past, sorcerous seeds bloom ever faster in the fattening, fertile soil.
Neosorcerers. Called "new" only because they are the nouveau generation of a kind apparent many times before. Divided from the sorcerer-empires of the past by their inexperience, their as-of-yet division, and their status as a weight in the balance of precipitous history.
Barely more than folk practitioners fed on scraps of ancient lore turned cultural wisdom. Medicine men and cunning women whose arts are queerly effective, and utterly queer. Practitioners who, while essentially beneficial, risk the discovery and dissemination of their potent arts to more dangerous hands.
Ruder among the small breeds of neosorcery are the so-called "sorcerous remnants:" the blood-soaked witches and animal druids that terrify frontier realms. Wicker-witches, their bloody arts informed by fallen, once-noble Agadion. Druids, their attempts at communion with Othersome älves forever sabotaged by their false reliance on the worst arts of men.
Products of human ingenuity. Like the Nor themselves; unwitting in the danger they flaunt, or perhaps hubristic. Players with toys not fully understood.
Some take what they can. Wilderness communities sprung up round the warm and mysterious hearts of cracked ruins, thankful for warmth and energy and oblivious to radiant danger. Poor ruins divers, eager to plumb the wealth laden depths, unaware that what they uncover was meant for a burial at sea. Or greedy cutters, the worst offenders of all, who, in search of ever more gold, unleash all manor of ancient dread in the name of the venturing economy.
Some scavengers are half-ignorant, willingly or not. Scholars of occultism, squirreled away in the depths of academic halls piled with dangerous texts and inscribed tablets, eagerly transcribing ancient warning messages as fast as they can discard them in favor of real, recorded sorcery. Or perhaps superhuman Avethan knights; warriors fed a lifetime diet of faith and discipline in hopes of concealing the sorcerous truth of their hallowed strength.
These are the more dangerous hands. The worst of all: These powerful few, fully ensconced in carefully constructed fortresses of wealth, station, and influence, who dare to call themselves the sorcerers of modern times.
Modern dark practitioners. Members of the masked aristosphere; wealthy eccentrics, mad scientists, and cloistered scholars and horologists, disturbingly akin to those who formed the sorcerous empires of old, who wield power and funds sufficient to prosecute a never-ending search for hidden sorcery. They search for the same power, the same legions, and the same immortality as the decorated horror-emperors they seek to emulate. And, safe in a stratum of society untouchable and detached from the world's petty concerns, they toil away, facing only the depredations of each other's ambition. They face discord and intrigue, the only blessed obstacle, save time, on their way to ultimate power.
Sorcerers are here. And, divided and different as they come, they are united by one factor:
They are hidden.
Neosorcery never survives without something to hide it, willingly or not. Something to distract, something more evident: The cunning woman with real power lives in the shadow of wild folk tradition. The sorcery-fueled knight is sheltered by his church. The bank executive in pursuit of eternal life is invisible compared to minion cutters unleashing eternal evil. The vizier with the crooked hands is the hidden, potent right hand of a more powerful, ostentatious man.
Sorcery yet lives, concealed.
Seeds on a blooming lawn.
While gone, I've generated lots of ideas (and acquired a cushy new job.) This idea (bit of a warm-up) relates strongly to the current campaign I'm running, which is, of course, the glorious d12-based Incunabuli Playtest, which you are also welcome to try.
Warm thanks to everyone who reached out during my hiatus.
More lore to come.