Some Notes on Magick
Magic in its present form has only been practiced for about two centuries. The spirit shepherds were aware of the existence of other worlds and realms of being before then, but only with the creation of the spirit stake were they able to do more than observe via the use of assorted powerful drugs.
The spirit stake is created during a ritual undergone while on a particular mixture of alkaloid herbs and poisonous mushrooms. Inspired carvings and designs link the stake to a specific spirit witnessed by the ritualist; from then on, when correctly hammered into a living creature at a focal point just above the navel, that creature is granted powers and abilities derived from the linked spirit. While hypothetically usable on any creature with a navel, for reasons which should be obvious they have only been used on humans after the first furtive tests of their utility.
Those who bear a spirit stake are known as magi, bearers of sacred wisdom. Spirit shepherds consider all magi living gods and treat them with due respect; governments across the planet consider magi force multipliers in combat and beings of intense utility outside of battle. Conflict between these two viewpoints has favored world governments over shepherds; shepherds are funded and accommodated in exchange for equipping as many troops as can successfully host a spirit. Most shepherds are content with considering magi as living monuments to the power and influence of the spirit realms on the physical.
Certainly, a spirit has little to lose once it has been attached to a stake; for all intents and purposes they are invincible in their native habitats. Spirits attached to stakes do not die of old age or sickness, and while they can be beaten off, wounded, trapped in an untenable situation, or suffer a variety of other misfortunes, they cannot be slain. This can lead to profoundly old and profoundly powerful spirits. The oldest and most owerful spirit, the sail mantis Worldtree, was one of the first spirit stakes ever carved, perishing at the ripe old age of 183.
There is a consequence for harnessing the power of spirits: inevitably, physical alterations are made to those who host a spirit. There is a cycle known coloquially as "being in." Depending on the spirit, there are a few days or weeks of "being in toe-deep," as a magi can back out of their status without significant physical alteration. When this grace period ends, then comes "being waist deep," where the first physical changes begin. During this tumultuous period, removing the stake will leave the user either heavily injured, crippled, or dead.
One the physical changes are complete, one is "in too deep," and returning to a normal human existence is impossible. Some magi can remove their stakes and return to life with some adjustments for their physical alterations; others are effectively bound to their stakes until they die, else perish ignominiously. Rumblers, being the most common and most heavily altered, are the most affected by this.
Spirit stakes are immaterial once they are activated, and can only be removed in one of two ways: by a ritual of liberation that frees the stake for use again, or by the user's death. Rarely, a stake may be destroyed by a sufficiently powerful attack to a magi's midsection. This has since become more common with the proliferation of rifled firearms and explosives, as prior it would take a powerful stroke by a strong man to damage a stake, or an intensely lucky shot with a musket.
"Lucky," though, may not be the right word. Damage or particularly destruction of a stake also results in the death of the attached spirit--and, in its death throes, its powers are loosed uncontrollably in the material world. This is known as a magi burst, or simply a burst. While slain doves may simply vent gouts of antiseptic fluid and analgesics, and slain automatons surge forth with hungry, panicking, dying, alien ants, other bursts are yet more spectacular and horrible. Boiler bursts, for instance, have scarred the landscape of Równiny, perhaps irrevocably.
Modern warfare has made the prospect of fielding magi a trickier affair than before. The new ubiquity of precision firearms and explosives has made effectively every magi death a potential burst, and thus a potential disaster. Some insist that the age of magic in war is ending, and that the next big conflict will be the last nail in its coffin--a particularly showy and unpleasant nail at that. Others think that the threat of bursts is not enough to deter the sheer utility a magi presents to a fire team or squad. Only time will tell.
Certain Types of Magi
While other types exist, these are the ones most familiar to inhabitants of Równiny and Górazima.
Rumblers are the most common and, until the creation of the Boilers, the most iconic of magi. Rumblers are imbued with incredible physical strength and endurance, along with a dramatically accelerated rate of healing. While this is accommodated by a drastically increased need for protein and iron, the increase is distinctly insufficient to cover the logical deficit in calories a Rumbler would undergo to patch over rifle wounds or replace lost blood in moments. While not flashy, Rumblers are simply easy to use, dangerous (able to flip over or cripple armored vehicles with particular use of a rumble pike, for instance), and have a number of uses in logistics due to their high mobility coupled with high strength.
The downside of these powers is the effect on the Rumbler's physical form. Incredible physical exertion results in incredible damage to the user's muscles, which are healed over by their spirit's healing factor, resulting in irregular, abnormal muscle groups growing to replace the original. Their bones harden, long bones and the bones of the skull having a tendency to "scab over" for additional protection, resulting in visible knotted lumps on their arms, legs, and skull. Rumblers are typically Rumblers for life; removal of their stake generally results in a halved lifespan from the acromegaly-, cystic-fibrosis-, and fibrodysplasia-ossificans-progressiva-like damage done to their bodies.
A Rumble burst, known as a concussion burst or conc, results in the sudden expression of all potential energy contained in the Rumbler and their symbiotic spirit. This creates a devastating overpressure wave, either all at once or in a series of devastating pops.
It is of note that while Rumbler armor (every army that makes use of Rumblers ensures that they are heavily armored) has a functional purpose--lowering damage taken and thus reducing the strain on the Rumbler's body from healing--its all-concealing nature is inevitably a means of keeping their gruesome appearance out of sight and out of mind.
Rumblers derive their powers from the rumble worm, an herbivorous spirit species that lives in forests constantly buffeted by hurricane-force winds. Averaging four feet in length at adulthood, rumble worms resemble a cross between a caterpillar, a koala bear, and a pug, an absolutely harmless-looking green lozenge with four stubby legs and a blunt, toothy mouth. Despite their appearance, their muscles have ludicrously dense sarcomeres and store incredible, perhaps impossible, amounts of energy. Precise measurements are impossible due to only being witnessed in drug-induced hazes, but scientists who have taken the plunge accredit the Rumbler's healing powers to be a necessary secondary power in order for a human body to survive the influx of power granted by symbiosis with a rumble worm.
Mantids are the signature magi of Równiny. They can create and command gusts of wind, ranging from gentle breezes to localized tornadoes. As a Mantid grows in power, their control over wind is such that they can approximate such tricks as telekinesis, flight, and barriers against projectiles which send bullets flying far from where they were aimed. (The last trick is known as "adjusting with windage" among Mantids who think they're funny.)
Mantis have among the most mild of transformations due to their powers. Their hair inevitably turns green and stays green; their eyes grow silvery mirrorlike scales that ward off dust and grit yet somehow do not impair vision despite growing over pupil and iris; and their tongue grows a slit from which emerges a retractable root covered in sharp rootlets, which they use to consume nutrients from food.
Retiring as a mantis is known as "putting the blindfold on," as the scales in the Mantis's eyes lose the property that makes them see-through, and until they are shed, the Mantis is blind. More problematic is the tongue rootlet, which effectively becomes a tumor sitting in a wound on the subject's tongue. Surgery can remove the root and restore some ability to eat normally, but often damage from the rootlet renders the tongue at least partially insensate or unable to taste, and at worst require the tongue be removed.
A mantid's burst, known as a vortex burst, results in powerful winds streaming from their bodies, creating a dangerous localized windstorm. The more powerful the spirit, the more widespread and apocalyptic the resultant burst, up to the creation of tornadoes.
Outside of combat, Mantids are valued for their ability to cool or heat troops in intense weather and transport messages or small packages discretely and swiftly. In battle, Mantids are used to sow discord among the enemy and transport fire team members to strategically useful locations, such as rooftops. In peacetime, Mantids power windmills and commandeer sailing ships.
The namesake spirit which grants their powers is the sail mantis. Averaging seven feet in length, they have serpentine bodies with a pair of long, spiked grasping limbs used to hold down prey while their "mouths"--a bundle of tentacle-like roots--do their dark work. They also bear fine, feathery wings and a hollowness in their "chest" known as a vortex organ, the source of their ability to create powerful winds. With use of the vortex organ and wings, the sail mantis can cover enormous distances with minimal energy, as well as stun enemies or prey.
Sail mantids never stop growing, and so sufficiently old mantids put down roots with their feathery tails and remain sessile, transitioning from predators to ambush omnivores. Worldtree, the oldest known sail mantis, reached a height of forty feet (assuming one's perceived height in its spirit world is the same as in the material).
While Doves are among the least physicall demanding of magi to be, they are definitely one of the most viseral, and thus fewer exist than any country would prefer. A Dove's tears sooth and clean injuries. A Dove's salia numbs wounds. A Dove's tongue becomes an enormously long member covered in manipulators, including a variety of scalpel-sharp teeth and cilia, all dripping with an agent that encourages swift healing. Doves are thus among the best surgeons in the planet, but must perform every surgery by plunging their tongues into wounds.
One may surmise why Doves are not more common.
A Dove's physical alterations are relatively minor, but vocal communication is out the window. Retired Doves generally undergo surgeries that remove almost all of their tongue, save the hindmost segment, in order to return some ability to speak, as well as prevent choking due to loss of fine control over the member. Other than this, their eyes turn a pinkish color and their vision takes a pinkish haze due to the presence of antiseptic in their tears.
Dove bursts are perhaps the most mild of all, merely resulting in a messy explosion of topical anesthetic and antiseptic. Colloquially these are called "sleep bursts." While disorienting and vile, the only real risk of death is due to accident from loss of sensation, or due to drinking too much of the antiseptic and anesthetic.
A Dove's powers stem from the doctor's dove, a spirit pigeon with a woodpecker-like beak fit with nasty serrations and a numbing agent that enables them to cut chunks from large animals. That Doves obtain their healing powers from rank and particularly unpleasant parasites is either ironic or entirely fitting, depending on one's opinion of getting treated by having one's injuries, to use a Terran expression, "French kissed."
The most infamous and gruesome of magi are the Boilers. A recent discovery by Górazima, they may be thought of as a dark counterpart to Mantids--or at least a substantially more destructive one. Boilers secrete and manipulate a layered fluid: an outer layer of a water-like substance that does not appear to actually be water (due to its swift evaporation it has been difficult to pin down exactly what it is), and an inner fluid of intensely inflammable oil. The oil can be diluted to "merely" burst into white-hot flames on exposure to atmosphere, or concentrated to outright explode. A Boiler can project these fluids in geyserlike gouts or create hovering clouds.
Boilers are immune to the effects of their own flames, though not any secondary explosions or fires caused by the spread. A few Boilers who have launched attacks on magazines or ammo dumps have learned this the hard way.
Once a Boiler is in waist-deep, their arms grow long lines of fine, puckered orifices which secrete the fluid used in their attacks. (Until this point, a Boiler summons the fluid out of thin air.) While comparatively mild a mutation, the few Boilers who have retired due to injury have found that these orifices do not close up, ever. Once retired, Boilers are resigned to having a number of tiny injuries up and down their arms, which must be continually dressed in gauze and antiseptic to prevent infection. Loss of sensation in the arms and occasionally hands is common, as is loss of strength or coordination if the hollows that once contained glands do not shrink up following retirement.
There are few things as terrifying as a Boiler burst, known as a firestorm or hellstorm for reasons which should be obvious: the Boiler explodes in a mass of chaotically exploding and burning fluid, which, worst of all, does not all go off at once. Pockets of buffering fluid sent spraying far afield of the initial explosion can evaporate and cause further explosions or bursts of flame minutes after the initial burst. A few ill-timed Boiler bursts have destroyed farmland and old-growth forests in the Flatlands.
The source of a Boiler's power stems from the boil fish. In its aquatic habitat, boil fish are fat mola-mola-like fish coated in an orangish grease. The grease is a powerful irritant, and a taste results in a hideously powerful burning sensation, like taking a bite out of a ghost pepper. Boil fishes brought to the surface burst into flame or, if they're unlucky, explode; it was the witnessing of alien intelligences accidentally pulling up a boil fish in a net that prompted research into the powers they may convey.
(As it happens, no sentient spirit-being has been successfully harnessed as a stake. It is unknown why this is so, or what would happen if such an attempt were successful.)
Empire ants are [CLASSIFIED]
The cryptically named Squid are [REDACTED]