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Of Essænce and the Unlife

By Cormac Doyle

Edited by Lowell R. Matthews for The Guild Companion

Copyright ©2000

Excerpts from On the Nature of the Unlife, a lecture to the Collegiate of the Arcane by sage Crom taal Kieranis, Professor of the Occult:

"The uniqueness of Kulthea is not based in the system of magic used, nor is it in the races or cultures one encounters. Rather, it is the world itself—a world where Essænce flows form barriers stronger than any river, where Earthnodes are used as the foci of empires, and where the wild Essænce storms are expected to rage across the lands in the same way as the states of the plains expect the odd tornado. Yet there is a stain spreading across Kulthea, a blight which threatens to corrupt and distort everything with which it comes into contact. This foul element is the Unlife, or Unessænce.

"Both the Essænce and the Unlife are derived from planes of existence that intersect with our reality—the Prime Material Plane (PMP), if you will—at only a few select points. Uniquely, Kulthea naturally intersects both planes. However, where the Essænce serves to augment and enhance living organisms, the Unlife derives from a plane so alien to our own that it can only corrupt, and ultimately destroy, any living organism with which it comes in contact. This is due in part to its foul nature. The Unlife (or Unessænce) is not simply the absence of Essænce, it is the complete antithesis of the Essænce—in much the same way that antimatter is not simply the absence of matter, but is rather the polar opposite.

"Although the Essænce can be said to originate from a separate, parallel plane which is closer to some parts of this plane than others, that is not entirely true. All living processes evolve and feed off the Essænce, but normally this occurs at such low levels that it would be impossible to evoke even the most rudimentary effect. The great cataclysm which hurled the Lords of Orhan into the PMP strengthened the link between the PMP and the planes of Essænce in such a way that the system where Kulthea is located was bathed in the Essænce—sufficient for the inhabitants of that system to begin to experiment with the Essænce as a natural force.

"The Unlife serves a similar purpose in the planes where it originates, but its very basis of life and being is so alien to beings from the PMP that it belies description. The problem faced by Kulthea is that the K'ta'viiri—in trying to create portals between their homeworld and the other planets in their great stellar empire—managed to open a rift to the planes of Unlife. This rift is like a gaping wound to the planes of the Unlife—a wound that is spreading a foul corruption of Essænce through the lands near the rift in the same way that the Unlife is befouling Kulthea.

"Perhaps you could say that the Unlife has a purpose, a desire to annihilate life, but in reality it doesn't. It is simply an elemental force, a corruption spreading like oil spilling from a leaking vessel. Unfortunately, we do yet know of any way to stem this tide of pollution. For beings whose very existence is threatened, the Unlife is the epitome of Evil—but in truth it is merely an oozing corruption, mindless, unguided, and heedless of its environs.

"However, just as the Essænce confers certain powers upon those who learn ways to manipulate it, so the Unlife can also confer such benefits. Of course, wielding the Unlife requires its users to allow this foul corruption to course through their bodies—ultimately destroying them unless they make the ultimate sacrifice, the transition to the Unlife to become an Undead—a creature that draws upon the Unlife for its very existence. This happens because life on Kulthea draws sustenance from the Essænce; therefore, followers of the Unlife will constantly have to struggle with their very existence as the basis of their magic corrupts and befouls their own bodies."

So how does this treatise apply to role-playing in the world of Kulthea? Well, firstly, we have to redefine "Good" and "Evil." If "Evil" is a force, then surely it is the Unlife? Yet I have said that the Unlife can be wielded much like the Essænce. The "Evil" spell lists (Evil Channelling, Evil Essence, Evil Mentalism, and certain professions' Base Lists) represent only the smallest fraction of the powers that a person can draw down when they decide to take the "Dark Path."

Secondly, the Gods of Kulthea—whether they are the Lords of Orhan, the Dark Gods of Charón, or more localised deities—all derive their powers from the natural Essænce. Does this make them all "Good"?

To be quite honest, these problems have always troubled me. By almost any definition one may care to use, the Unlife should be described as "Evil"—unless of course you happen to hail from a dimension which uses the Unlife as the basis of "life" (sic). However, "Evil" is also a mindset—one which puts no value on human (sentient?) life, one which will do practically anything for power, etc. Perhaps many of the people with such a mindset would be drawn to the Unlife, because it offers the "Quick Fix"—power, with a deferred cost. However, there are many for whom the Unlife represents that boundary that even they will not or cannot cross.

If the Dark Gods of Charón are—as has been suggested in several places—Lords of Orhan who decided to go their own way (with one or two exceptions; A'Kesh, the God of Runes, is definitely an "Essænce Demon," not an ex-Lord of Orhan), then they could hardly be creatures of the Unlife. In fact, there are several recorded instances of the Gods of Charón fighting alongside the forces of "Good" to eliminate a particularly powerful infestation of the Unlife. Yet many of the Dark Gods would certainly be classified as "Evil" in the conventional sense of the word—they demand living sacrifices; they promote wars and genocide in the name of power; and they encourage acts of rape, torture, sodomy, etc., which would be abhorrent to the Lords of Orhan and their followers.

What then of the Undead and the Demon Hordes, the classic "Evil Enemy" faced by most characters at some time in their campaigns? If the Undead are creatures of the Unlife, how can the Dark Gods use Undead servants? This problem actually has a very simple solution, but one which requires a revision to our outlook on the Undead. Each Undead creature or construct must be reconsidered. How is it created? What exactly is it? What purpose does it serve? Vampires, Liches, Black Paladins, etc., are all clearly Creatures of the Unlife of one form or another. Ghosts, Wights, etc., may be natural spirits, condemned to haunt the locations where they died. Skeletons and Animated Dead are just that—Animated—and so may be created by either.

"Demons" are any creatures or beings from a plane other than the Prime Material Plane; thus, an "Angel" is a type of demon by this definition. In the Shadow-World Master Atlas, the name "Chaos Demon" was applied to demons which originated from the planes of the Unlife, while "Essænce Demon" was applied to the more commonly summoned and/or located demons which originated from planes that use the Essænce as their basis for life. Of course, the Demons of the Void are/were considered to be outside this schema—Agothu and his spawn exist outside the Multiverse, and possess some form of other-worldly power which confounds understanding, being neither Life nor Unlife, Essænce nor Unessænce.

Perhaps this text has merely served to raise more questions than it has answered, but I will endeavour to answer such questions in the next few articles. These will describe my entire take on the magic of Kulthea; the interactions between the Lords of Orhan, the Dark Gods of Charón, and the localised gods and demigods of Kulthea; and the incursions of the Unlife.

Editor's Note

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