The Forging of Soulsteel
One of the most feared and powerful substances in the known Underworld is the magical material alloyed of venous iron and unwilling souls, simply called soulsteel. The grimmest of artificers fashion this substance by placing (often struggling) wraiths bodily into pits of soulfire, and as they begin to melt hideously, merging them into an already molten pool of venous iron.
There is no way to mistake it – smelting a soul is a gruesome and inhuman process, something the sturdiest or most insane mortal would blanch at the prospect of, horrified, perhaps, at the thought of receiving the treatment one day. But this dread often does not stop the more remorseless dead. Some ghosts even revel in the process: deep in the Labyrinth, nephwracks have gleefully erected monumental citadels, every inch rendered from hundreds, if not thousands, of plaintive, wailing souls, begging for release from their eternal agony.
The process of gathering venous iron is a straightforward one – one simply ventures into the Well of the Void, and down its stair, into the Labyrinth beyond. Often venous iron is found under rocky layers of scabrous pus, or the charred corridors where soulfire occasionally blazes forth in tidal waves of liquid fire. The wise ghost can sometimes even catch the smell, by looking for an acrid bloody tinge scenting the wind.
Of course, the process of finding a ghost is even simpler, but most sane would-be artificers are loath to simply apprehend the nearest dead and utilize them. Often, the artificer in question fulfills internal criteria to moralize or sanitize the horrible murderous act. One artificer may look for the lonely, outcast, and relieve them of their sorrowful loneliness, while another gains vengeance for himself through the act of soulforging, rendering his foes into the magical alloy as punishment for their slights.
Often, one cannot simply hunt down handy hungry ghosts and tame them into submission for the purposes of soulforging. On top of struggling as soon as they realize what is going on, the majority of hungry ghosts alloyed with venous iron produce delivered steel, a very inferior variety of soulsteel. This is because power is a substance conveyed easily even in smelted corpus, and there are few hungry ghosts of sufficient strength to be used to cast superior steel – usually the most prevalent source of powerful hungry ghosts stems from those remnants of those Exalted and God-blooded with particularly violent, horrible or star-crossed lives. Understandably, these hungry ghosts are hard to apprehend, much less restrain long enough in the soulfire pits.
This means many other things are valuable in the use of soulforging. Many Nephwracks, for instance, possess great strength, such as the feared Alhiomaenod, the Baron of the Clock of Limitless Hours. To use apparitions of such power as stock is to lend great possibility of puissance to an object. Indeed, sometimes a being is so potent that it takes a great artificer to adequately quell or at least leash the being’s intellect, else it emerge in undesired or uncontrolled powers.
The largest soulforging grounds in the Underworld frequently also double as prisons for the damned, as it were. Bound in restricting manacles and pierced by meat hooks to hang from the beams of the ceiling, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of desperate ghosts weep and struggle in a prison-forge, awaiting their punishment in the pits. This way, the manufacture of arms and armor for the endless armies of the beholden dead may continue day to day, without interruption to search for more stock. Wardens and soulsmiths, grim burly artificers patrol their stock houses watchfully, every sobbing, desperate soul more jade coins and prestige in the smith’s back pocket.
Due to the wide variety of spectral beings occupying the Underworld, there have been several historical discoveries in the science of alloying soulsteel. Foremost, at least five different alloys have been perfected, each derivative of a certain order of ghosts or some un-living creature. Widely varying in both power and appearance, each alloy is a slightly different material from the next, and carries with it new and unique properties. Presumably, there are other soulsteel alloys known to more powerful artificers, but these five recorded here are the most widely taught. It is said that though ghosts and spirits are the simplest thing to use in the soulforge, any conscious being may be used as stock by an expert artificer.
This alloy is perhaps the most known for general high magnitude of both power and malevolence. Within labyrinthine steel lurks the heart of a complete, corrupting evil that no longer knows the limits of flesh or conscious thought. Often legends concerning labyrinthine steel concern themselves with the descent into depravity and devilry that bearers of a labyrinthine artifact experience. This is, of course, because labyrinthine soulsteel is comprised of soulforged beings once known as the messiahs of the Dead Gods themselves – nephwracks.
To lock an alloyed nephwrack into a wonder as a magical material is to lock a key of Oblivion within what most often will be an object of power strong enough to deliver any of its bearers into the indescribable embrace of nothingness – provided there is enough time to properly cajole, that is. Labyrinthine steel is pitch black, and featureless, save that swirling pinpoints of red light collect on its surface, dancing in arcane, maddening patterns.
Pitted steel holds trapped beneath its surface a tempest of uncontrollable, rapidly fluctuating, power. It seems to embody violence in most regards, thirsting hungrily for more and more destruction. Not the strongest of alloys, pitted steel has a strong undercurrent remarked upon often by the sensitive. Merely touching the iron, one can almost seem to feel the whirling storm inside. Pitted steel takes this endless rapacity directly from the core of the mortwights it is made of – ghosts of men tainted by Oblivion even in life, betrothed to it completely in death.
Pitted soulsteel is the most difficult alloy to adequately forge, due to the corrosive flood of mortwight Essence within it. Mortwights seem to lose composition in destructive ways when soulforged, and much of their stock is lost before the material is finished, dissolving into hissing black vapors, that curl in the wind like snakes. To use pitted alloys, as stock for a wonder, is to almost guarantee the product will be uncontrollable in its search for its own destruction, as well as that of all who hold it.
Pitted soulsteel is dull gray and deceptively dull appearing, yet is truly pitted and pockmarked – no artificer has yet successfully sculpted pitted steel into a smooth surface. Even if it appears smooth after forging, bubbles slowly rise to the surface over a period of two or three days, leaving craters when they burst. Often, pitted wonders have runes and sigils etched upon their serrated edges – irregularities designed to satiate the metal’s soul, and hide its natural imperfections.
The Underworld does not specifically need humanity in order to fuel its excesses and depravities. Chasm alloys, though one of the more infrequent alloys, capitalizes on the natural resources of the Underworld. The fodder for chasm steel is simple – the spirits of dead beasts or beastlike spirits that never lived. Chasm soulsteel is made after a huntsman’s journey to collect the proper beasts, and embodies the animals that compose it eerily. The soulforging process then results in an untamed alloy that as often as not chooses its bearer itself, displaying a fondness and loyalty for certain possessors above others.
Chasm steel wonders are polished gray, never seeming to smudge. In its surface, reflections are contorted and beastly, strange images of the looker on. Often these mirror images have hauntingly accurate depictions of the nature of the looker. Greed results in pig-like features, and deception results in serpentine appearances. Sometimes, though, the images simply do not show up, instead replaced by spectral murals of the endless dance of predators and prey.
To lock beasts in steel and then use them as fodder for wonders is considered an exquisitely elegant practice amongst un-living huntsmen. Often these wonders bear such a straightforward quality that loftier collectors will shun them based completely on what they may reveal of their would-be owners, one day.
Delivered steel is the most common soulsteel alloy, as even artificers of too strong a conscience can see the justifications involved in the forging of it. Usually the weakest alloy, delivered soulsteel, has great potential for power, though the margin is much narrower here than it is for chasm or labyrinthine alloys. Delivered soulsteel is called what it is because the process of creating it ‘delivers’ its victims into a much more respectable state of being. The victims, of course, are hungry ghosts.
Being nothing but the base, discarded bestial portion of an unfettered soul, a hungry ghost endures little change when smelted into soulsteel, except that of shape. As conscious as it ever was, the dull gray un-shining steel bears on its surface whirling, tormented faces. Delivered steel is nothing if not insatiable, and placing it in a wonder results in an object as spiteful and gluttonous as the spirit it was ‘delivered’ from.
Penitent soulsteel is named so due to the tradition of soulforging dangerous, imprisoned ghosts into societally useful objects. Although the more frequent fodder for penitent steel are ghosts meant for lethal punishment, penitent steel is still rightfully considered misnamed by many ghosts who dread the process. This is because of the not infrequent occasion that a power thirsty ghost will resort to this process to murder his foes and obstacles. Or, just as frequently, perverse and rich ghosts will have their treasured consorts rendered “forever loyal”, and mount their remains as trophies. Just how different reality is from tradition is threat enough for most ghosts: step out of line, and you, too, may become penitent soulsteel.
Most affluent dead, despite the dread it embodies, use penitent steel frequently, because it is the second most common soulsteel alloy. The most common variety of penitent steel is a dull gray, which polishes to a mirror shine, and occasionally reflects strange faces or sniffles quietly, unable to weep. However, the alloy’s pigmentation ranges widely – a fact known to knowledgeable artificers is that the more corrupt a ghost is, the darker his penitent steel will be. In the same vein, ghosts of purer heart and intention have less of the familiar dull gray in their steel. Instead the little gray there is seems to be nothing more than frozen, curling tendrils of smoke within a translucent metal shell. In the infrequent case of entirely innocent ghosts being soulforged, the penitent alloy has come out glassy and almost invisible, fully transparent – in the event that more than half of the steel is translucent, penitent steel is instead called innocent steel. The Lover Clad in the Raiment of Tears has one of the most elegantly carved innocent soulsteel blades that have ever been made.
The outcome of placing penitent steel in a wonder is unique to the nature of the ghost it has been made with. There are few uniform ways to predict how penitent or innocent steel will influence currents of Essence, beyond the established art of the Five Pits soulfire technique most prevalent today. Innocent steel is the most rare and expensive genre of soulsteel alloys, out-priced only by unique penitent, labyrinthine and delivered soulsteel wrought of certain enormously powerful or important ghosts.
The Five Pits Soulfire Techniques
Over uncounted ages, the process of soulforging has grown from its roots as a Gods-given artificer’s frontier into a practice so evolved as to be called an art. It is a quite gruesome art, just the same. Its artisans are often grim-faced and remorseless, and in few other arts do your subjects shriek and plead for mercy as you work upon them. However, it is still something like an art, and in places, such as the prisons of the warden-smiths of Sijan, the art has been taken very seriously.
One of the products of the sophistication of soulforging is a set of techniques now widespread amongst almost every serious soulforge smithy. These techniques are called the Five Pits Techniques, and they are a collection of soulfire techniques, and actual torture and manipulation techniques as well.
The foundation of the Five Pits Techniques were the discovery that the emotions felt during the last few moments of conscious thought soulsteel fodder has, are emotions that tend to continue eternally throughout the steel’s existence. And so, the technique’s tools are as much a series of manipulative intimidations and taunting, as they are the differing concentrations of soulfire.
The mark of a smith truly dedicated to the Five Pits Techniques are a set of five different chambers, each adorned differently from the last, with a soulfire forge often in the exact middle. Each of the five forges blazes with a different pitch of light, relevant to what technique will be used there.
The five pits are arranged in no ascending or descending order of note, beyond an order of how difficult each emotion is to evoke for each certain smith. In a subject often aware of exactly what is going to happen to it, certain emotions can be hard to invoke, indeed. It is for this reason that many warden-smiths adopt a policy of complete silence until the process is to begin, and wear masks during the forging. In that way, the victim's surprise better conveys the smith's efforts.
This pit technique is also known in older circles as Caustic Valley Blossom. Its hallmark is the crimson soulfire pit and the Smug and Boastful Mask. Furious soulsteel is undoubtedly the most useful soulsteel in martial capacity, as it forever seeks revenge for a purpose no longer known to its autistic soul, and so, is often used to achieve vicious types of lethality that were, in the youth of the world, unthought of.
A mocking, knowledgeable entourage of ghosts there specifically to taunt the victim carefully articulates this unending fury into the ghost. He is pulled from the pit and thrust in it time and time again, and sometimes seared slowly while tormented in annoying and uncomfortable ways. Poked, prodded, harried and insulted by the entourage, the fury grows strong in almost every instance.
The martial benefits of furious soulsteel are apparent even before the effects of the technique are taken into consideration. What eager warrior could not appreciate the value of arms and armor that are just as eager, and, atop that, much more frightening to behold than their bearer?
Furious soulsteel stock usually culminates finely in pitted and delivered alloys, but grants any wonder it is wrought into a wanton desire to taste constant blood and ash. Furious soulsteel feels violence from far away, and trembles in excitement. It hums contentedly as it devours flesh, and hounds down any chance to do so uncannily, acting as a dowsing rod towards death and discord. It has been known to cry out the names of its bearer's foes.
Powerful furious soulsteel wonders evidence the old namesake of the technique, Caustic Valley Blossom. This name describes the occasion of grim satisfaction wherein a furious soulsteel artifact will be surrounded by a dimly seen, contented blood-red light. Usually, this only occurs after horrible displays of carnage in which the wonder played a key role.
The two tenets of the Fury technique are...
- Never cease your provocation; provoke even the steel,
- Deny vengeance - the steel must thirst to avenge itself forever more.
Still referred to by the name of Softly Drifting Cinders by purists and modernists alike, this technique is focused on building up an unnamable sensation of dread in the subject. Its hallmark is the green soulfire pit and the Secret and Unnamable Mask. Dreadful soulsteel is frequently rendered pliant and slender, and sewn into garments - or adorned upon the garments in effigies of tormented bodies and faces, or howling skulls.
Dreadful soulsteel is unique in that the moans of the steel never cease, so great is its anticipation of horrible omens. In many cases the finished soulsteel is wrought into many different bands and spread across many different artifacts, along with other varied dreadful stocks. This creates what is known as the grave song, a grotesque harmony of perpetual moans that sound convincingly like a melody.
Melodious dreadful soulsteel is very popular, to say the least, amongst the decadent and affluent of the Underworld. Sometimes entire chambers are wrought of dreadful soulsteel, and then adorned with other wondrous instruments of music and harmony, to accompany the horrified wails.
Due to the process of its manufacture, the most common suppliers of dreadful steel are the malevolent and dangerous nephwracks, particularly those deepest within the foreboding bowels of the Labyrinth. The most frequent alloy wrought by dread is penitent steel - at least, everyday ghosts are the easiest to inflict the process on. Merely imagining other nephwracks or mortwights feeling dread is nearly laughable - however, knowing what they do of their Dead Gods, nephwracks are far more prone to an educated variety of dread. The Malfeans are terrible in ways that defy shape and mere existence, and most nephwracks know this well.
Dreadful soulsteel is made possible through an agonizingly brutal process, wherein the ghost's head is forced into a clamp of veinous iron and its eyes concealed. Then the more delicate process of taunting and revelations begin. Secrets are revealed about the fabric of reality. The horrific end of the Dead Gods' life is shared. And finally, but most importantly, the ghost is told every grim fact about its future existence as a soulsteel ornament. Often, this last portion is what finally breaks the ghost. And, pleading against the anxiety of its foreknowledge, it is lowered slowly into the pit, to be smelted.
This art is difficult by nature of how rare it is to obtain secrets that will flawlessly impose dread. However, there are many good liars in the employ of smithies that adopt this technique, that are more than capable of spinning fancifully dreadful tales in surrogate of actual knowledge of the Void.
This technique produces soulsteel that "enjoys" company. Its misery is somber and soft when unobserved, but in the presence of any being of significant Essence, its song becomes clarion in quality. The spirit inside of the soulsteel is forever paranoid, and seeks to drive back the infinite unknowable through sheer tenor and volume. It constantly pleads for assistance against the dark borders of eternity, but its mortal voice has been lost and it can only wail, as trembling metal saws do. Dreadful steel has a strange capacity for detecting danger or evil - its paranoia flares, and it begins to moan horribly. Unfortunately, because of its tendency to beg for attention, only the discerning eye knows for sure.
The two tenets of the Dread technique are...
- Share the darkest secrets of the Underworld, even if false,
- Dread is an emotion of approaching, not present, fear.
Sorrowful steel, alloyed through a process called the Winter Chills Bone technique, is fairly easy to undertake, while at the same time being difficult to prepare for. It is known by the pale blue soulfire pit, and the Plain but Merciless Mask. Like its namesake, the technique demonstrates the process of approaching winter - for the subject, the coldness within sorrow rises slowly, but builds up inevitably and without surcease, to eventually smother even the most resilient.
Sorrowful steel involves a great deal of research on the subject to be forged, as its undertaking involves the systematic slaughter or termination of everything the ghost to be forged holds dear. It is a very simple process, and even the most novice soul-smiths can accomplish it, depending on their willingness to demolish another ghost's fetters almost to the brink of sending the wraith screaming into oblivion. Success is almost guaranteed with all ghosts who still possess some sort of connection with the living landscape of Creation.
Nephwracks, and mortwights, and other spectres of the Void, are a different matter altogether, and do not tend especially towards feeling sorrow over anything (unless, perhaps, they perceive their existence as one long sorrow already). The process is different to them, and cannot usually be incurred by loss. It is more like the Crimson Valley Blossom technique, save that the ghost is led to believe that its undoings are its own Malfean ordained fate. Knowing no sorrow, hungry ghosts are never made into sorrowful steel.
The most valued sorrowful steel stock is that of innocent steel, because the process of saddening an innocent does not taint its soul in the slightest. The most famous of this genre of sorrowful steel is the Lover Clad in the Raiment of Tears' blade, a perfectly clear specimen. It is said that the Lover commanded and witnessed many couplings amongst her servants, forcing an imprisoned fertility spirit to bless their intercourse. Thirteen infants resulted, and were swiftly slain and smelted into this blade, shrieking for their mothers the entire process - yet, now, eerily silent.
Sorrowful wonders cast an air of oppression around them, and the area of this effect seems to increase proportionately with the power of the spirit held within the artifact. Sorrowful steel has, alone amongst the techniques, the major points of its memory intact, yet it weeps for its lost existence even more because of this. Mortals share in this sorrow, and if held long in the presence of steel alloyed with this technique, they have been known to commit suicide in hopes of the relief of death.
The two tenets of the Sorrow technique are...
- Sorrow builds best if built slowly,
- Be brutal and cast blame if possible; guilt is equal to sorrow.
Once, the only way to produce hungry soulsteel was to quickly forge a wonder from the fodder of delivered or chasm alloy stock. Alone amongst the dead, the beasts of the Underworld (a category under which hungry ghosts default) still felt the insatiable hunger even after being smelted into steel. With the advent of the Five Pits techniques, however, methods have arisen to induce this same eternal hunger in other ghosts as well.
The process of making hungry steel is known as the Endless Ashen Fields technique, and it is marked by the purple soulfire pit, as well as the Proud and Dooming Mask. For every alloy save delivered and chasm soulsteel, the technique requires a volume of essence-stealing lookers-on proportionate to the strength of the ghost being destroyed. Because of this, the process is both simple and costly.
The Hunger technique involves the least interaction with the wraith, as the smith merely pounds the ghost into the veinous iron as the essence-stealers - called Mourners - do their task. Hour by hour, they slowly eke soulfire crystals out of the flames and the corpus of the victim. This essence is not theirs to keep, but rather, the smith's, though they may curry a tax as well as their pay in coins.
Already reliant on the economy for efficiency, hungry iron has one other strange trait that makes it worthwhile for manufacture. With the inclusion of a powder mixed of ash and ground bone, the resulting steel achieves a pliancy and weight that makes it very useful for currency. If coins are made of the mixture, they may be broken in half and then later reattached to different half-coins seamlessly. This makes accounting in anything but essence much more workable in an Underworld that is very reliant on barter and independent goods as opposed to government and currency. Many princes of the dead have adopted this coinage since its invention.
However, there is an inherent flaw to this thinking, though no ghost seems to have as of yet noticed its subtle sway. This is because hungry steel is just that - it is eternally wanting for nourishing pathos, but on the other hand, it is never satisfied by what it devours. And so, this dissatisfaction emanates quietly, soaking into those closest to it. In time, all those of little temperance fall to the sway of the nameless desire this process places in their hearts.
In the occasion of coinage, many ghosts mistake the desire for ambition, and seek more and more riches - particularly, hungry money. And so, greed becomes their crucible, and upon it many ghosts become new beings completely, devoured by their hungry steel coins.
Still, the business of manufacturing these coins is sanctioned and overseen by bureaucratic mold-bearers. It also supplies the luxury that Mourners are accommodated to. Because of these two facts, smiths are often very reluctant to forge hungry steel into anything else; sometimes, their hands are even tied legally, when a local ghost prince funded the smith's education and not inexpensive equipment.
The two tenets of the Hunger technique are...
- Be patient and watch for the emergence of true hunger,
- The stronger the stock, the more pervasive its hunger.
Torment and torture are potent tools in the Underworld as well as Creation, and not just for the frequent purpose of interrogation or self-justification. It is also a wondrous aid in the Splitting Sodden Fibers technique. This technique illustrates a map of pain upon a ghost as he lies upon a slow-cooking sheet of veinous iron. Eventually, he will be smelted into the sheet and folded into an artifact. This technique is known by the white soulfire pit, and the Longing but Laughing Mask. The mask adorns the smith the entire process, which often begins long before the smithing does. Days, weeks, or months must sometimes be spent 'preparing' subjects for the technique in specially prepared torture chambers. This goes doubly for the stronger or more resistant subjects.
This process is undoubtedly the most frequently occurring technique, and also the least appreciated. This is because, if the other techniques fail, they often default to agonized steel. Pain is uniform, and truly, only the deathknights and their superiors seem to be completely immune to it. Even the often-indescribable nephwracks shriek in pain, given enough time. Added upon all this, the subject knows very well that he will not survive the torment. And, in case he fosters any fantasies otherwise, the smith is obliged to inform his victim that the pain will continue forever, by the tenets of this technique.
Agonized steel is not weak simply because it is the most frequent occurrence of soulsteel alloys. Rather, it is a mirror of all the agonies it suffered as it was smelted, in addition to the agonies of those near to it - particularly those of powerful Essence. And so, sometimes, it can be painful to merely be in the presence of agonized soulsteel.
Agonized soulsteel is often wrought into minor armament for the legions of the Underworld, and so sizeable Stygian armies march under the banner of pain, carrying daiklaves of unbearable torment against their foes. Delivered alloys almost always become agonized soulsteel. In the instance of the rare hungry ghost of a particularly strong Exalt being smelted into a delivered soulsteel artifact, wonders have been made capable of leveling entire battalions under nauseous headaches mid-battle, vomiting blood and bile. And so it is known amongst the dead that under the banner of agony, the banners of weakness and plagues march as well.
Agonized soulsteel will periodically emit startled shrieks in moments of tension, and so it is rarely used as decoration by any but the most perverse. However, this same tendency makes it useful in lie-detection, and minor charms are often wrought from the weakest of soulsteel stocks to sell to the masses. Due to the relatively common occasion of soulsteel versus the other four magical materials, such charms sell inexpensively and are quite popular amongst the people. In response, many smithies manufacture these charms with regularity - even for smithies that have not adopted the Five Pits techniques, a torture chamber is a relatively common sight.
The two tenets of the Agony technique are...
- True agony comes in due time,
- Assist the process; begin torment before the smithing starts.
Very, very nice flavor material, particularly the innocent steel. - FourWillowsWeeping
Thanks, man! That's my favorite part, too :-D - Balthasar