In general terms, the world of the Ascent is technologically similar to Earth during the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.Most people are born, live, work, and die in the countryside, never to journey beyond walking distance of their homes. Travellers go by coach, or preferably canal barge or wooden sailing ship. Soldiers carry swords, bayonets, and flintlock muskets capable of firing three shots a minute. Disease and famine are more lethal than any weapon.
One area where the world of the Ascent is ahead of ours is aviation. For thousands of years, pegasi have enabled speedy communications over regions and continents – at a price. The beasts are rare and fragile, so only the richest (and royalty) can afford goods imported on pegasus-back, much less a flight via pegasus. For similar reasons, pegasus cavalry has remained impractical. Some polities, most notably the Vermilion Empire, have used pegasus riders as the backbone of swift, efficient messenger corps.
Of crucial importance has been the presence of what we would call magic. This comprises two distinct types:
First is the manipulation of a substance known as Fog, for its resemblance to the weather phenomenon. Fog is made up of tiny particles capable of emitting light, hovering in midair, moving under their own power, and forming themselves into larger objects. Objects formed from Fog are light and strong; no doubt this explains old myths about “magic swords” and “mithril armour”.
Fog can be controlled in one of two ways. With the right training, it is possible to directly give commands to one’s own Fog. Alternately, machines can be designed that manipulate Fog; for example, a flying machine could remain aloft on a bed of Fog, while a container of Fog could be programmed to morph into a suit of armour with the push of a button.
Fog contains a certain amount of energy, and once this is exhausted, it will disappear – seemingly into thin air. Historically, it was also difficult to obtain in anything greater than a trickle, with the result that Fog was expensive and carefully husbanded. This has gradually changed over the last couple of centuries, as scholars have discovered better ways of identifying and extracting Fog. In the last few years, the revolutionary discovery has been made that abundant sources of Fog do exist – in the sky. As Fog can keep a machine aloft, this means that a sufficiently large flying machine could remain indefinitely in the air, replenishing its Fog as it goes. This fact is not widely known beyond Tian Risa and her City of Winds.
The other notable form of magic is spirit mastery or summoning. Weaker spirit masters can talk to some – not all – spirits of the dead, while the most powerful can summon ancient heroes back to the mortal world, complete with material bodies. As the same spirit can be summoned multiple times over the centuries, this makes them formidably experienced allies.
The actual process of contacting a spirit requires an object associated with that person. The association may have been made in life, or during a previous time that spirit was summoned. Once contact is made, summoner and spirit will find themselves in a deserted environment of some significance to the spirit – a battlefield; a temple; a palace; something else entirely. There they may talk. If both parties agree, the spirit will be able to reenter the world – either with a material body (if the summoner is sufficiently strong) or else as a dormant presence within the summoner’s mind:
- Materialised spirits are indistinguishable from mortals at a glance – the main differences being that the spirit does not age; that their wounds are not permanent; and that when close to their summoner, they can switch between dormant and material forms.
- Spirits that are dormant (whether by choice, or because their summoner is insufficiently strong to materialise them) see with their summoner’s eyes and hear with their summoner’s ears. They can communicate with their summoner and, with their permission, can take control of the summoner’s body to speak or act.
Spirits are immortal, not invulnerable. The death of their summoner will end their link to the mortal realm (until the next time they are summoned). Likewise, materialised spirits will be sent back to the spirit realm if subjected to something that would kill a mortal.
The spirits themselves report that, in between summonings, they are not “conscious”. In other words, they go from death (or the death of their summoner) straight to an audience with their next prospective summoner. If gods or an afterlife exist, then the spirits have not seen them.
Unlike the ability to work with fog, spirit mastery is innate. Especially in its more powerful forms, it is also rare. Only a handful of spirit masters have lived, and they have gone on to be disproportionately important in the history of the world.
As far as scholars can tell, Fog and spirit mastery are not related. It is possible to be clueless at one and capable at the other, and spirit masters don’t require fog to do their work. The only link between them appears to be cosmetic: newly summoned spirits appear to materialise out of Fog. The significance of this remains to be seen.
Other forms of magic have been known to exist; however, these have been too rare to affect society.