The world is a perpetual desert of black sand, above which burns a dying blood-red sun. Water is rare. Metal is rare. Life, such as it is, has adapted to the brutality of the black desert. Dromadons roam slowly, eking sustenance from desert plants, preserving water in bulbous protuberances. Vultures the size of men circle in the pale sky, watching for carrion, roosting by night on talon-like cliffs of black rock. Enormous spiders wait for years in their secret pits beneath the sand, emerging suddenly in a flurry of barbed limbs to drag prey into their venomous maws.
Even humans live in the desert of black sand. Their cities are huddled around oases or in the protective shelter of the cliffs. They nourish cacti and desert flowers and cherish every drop of water that falls.
The lords of every city, the most numinous of men, are the Diviners, upon whom the gods see fit to bestow the Water Sight. Each Diviner is immortal, skin inscribed with countless sacred tattoos, eyes pale and occluded, and each rules a great city. It is said that they can call water forth from stones, that life in the desert would die if not for their rule, but they are also unapproachable, walled up in palaces of sandstone and ivory, concealed behind painted masks of bone, each possessing armies of soothsayers and magicians and soldiers and assassins.
According to heretical rumour, the Diviners have knowledge of the fate of the world, and that is why they war with one another. But this is beyond the command of common men. In the black desert, there are always more people than there are resources, and life is consequently cheap. They fight in arenas or for their lords, labour in the hot sun, bear burdens across the immensity of the desert, and die.
Whatever cataclysmic battle ruined the world also killed the gods. But they are not gone entirely, and manifested fragments of their dying thoughts are called spells.
Magic requires a source of power. This source of power is life-essence. The old magicians drew power from the world around them, and perhaps this is what killed the world. Such magic is illegal in every civilized city. Instead, most magicians use their own life force to fuel their spells.
There’s no paper, of course, so in place of scrolls magicians use clay tablets. Each tablet is painstakingly inscribed with the words and symbols that can invoke the spell. Any imbecile can invoke the power of a tablet by smashing it to pieces; this exhausts the energy within and manifests the spell instantly. More subtle magicians consult the words of the tablets and channel their own power into the spell, so that the tablet can be kept for future use.
How are the tablets made?
In every city, a coven of magicians jealously guards a library of tablets containing all the spells they know. Scribes labour continually to transcribe the spells onto new tablets. Any error can corrupt the spell, often with hideous consequences.
When the words are transcribed, the tablet must be imbued with power, or the text will soon fade. In cities with large guilds of magicians, armies of slaves are kept for this purpose; the spilling of their blood upon the new tablets is sufficient to empower them.
But this is stagnant knowledge, and not everyone finds is satisfactory. Certain prophets claim that, in certain sacred and desolate places, through weeks of patient meditation, one can attune to the thoughts of the dead gods, and that new words and symbols of power can therefore be found.
Others scour the desert for the tombs of long-lost kings and queens. The desert is littered with such places, feared by common folk for the old protections placed upon them, and because they are often lairs for terrible beasts. But the old lords were far closer to the gods than we, and their tombs often contain scraps of forgotten magic, among other treasures. A magicians’ guild in any city will pay dearly for such knowledge.
Casting a Spell
You need a source of power. Of course, each tablet contains its own magical essence, but unlocking it will destroy the tablet.
Plant-life, which draws magical energies from the sun itself, is the most potent, but the results are catastrophic. A verdant garden 1km square can provide up to 20 caster-levels of spell power but is consequently desiccated and turns to useless ash. And, of course, such an act is enough to sentence one to a fate worse than death in most cities.
One’s own life is the usual source, and 1 caster-level of power is gleaned for every 2 hit points of one’s own blood spilled in the casting. Most journeyman magicians carry a ceremonial knife used to spill their own blood onto the sacred tablets.
Of course, the life of another suffices just as well. A magician traveling with fighters will rush to each fresh kill, smearing the dying man’s blood onto the tablet so that a new spell can be cast. Much of the life-essence is wasted thus, providing only one caster-level per hit die of the victim.
The greatest magicians, those in the direct service of the Diviners, travel with armies of blessed slaves. Whenever such a mage must cast a spell, a slave is brought to him, docile thanks to heavy administration of lotus, and the mage can draw upon as much life-blood as is required.