Canno: The Sleepless Vigil

“You are not the hero.  Tens of millions of people on this planet surpass you in every art of arms and spellcraft at this exact moment. Destiny will not assure your victory. No god’s merciful hand will raise you up from your mistakes. Your bedmates will not be long-lost royalty, but the reek of iron, charnel, and blood.

By birth you are nothing, for nothing is what the world has given you. Yet in each of you writhes the lightning guide of the current. You will transmute yourselves by its sear, and Canno will break before your storm.” — Excerpt from the Grand Inquisitor’s address to a Convocation of Initiates, 1292 V.R.

(Author’s Note, 5/2/2021: updated this article by expurgating a few details you’re not meant to know yet, then greatly expanding on and revising the rest. It’s now fully up-to-date with my plans for the Expurgated Editions!)

(Cw: fascism, imperialism, descriptions of gore/body horror, death)

No world exists where the title “Inquisitor” kindles optimism.

The Vigil’s elite battle-mages have many other titles. They are spoken of as Black Robes in the Grast Kgor, where occult orders like the Hymnless Sisters stand shoulder to shoulder with the sanctioned invokers of the enclaves to deny the foreign fanatics entry. The Untrammeled Ways will remain untrammeled. The old powers will grow older still. This they swear, by bone and blood and shadow.

Inquisitors hear such oaths often.

This bulwark for nameless terrors and forbidden arts lies across the Summer Ocean on the continent of Taifen, separated by time, storms, and many world-warping anomalies from the Inquisitorial heartlands in central Ceslon. The Vigil have little cause to heed the howls of far-west mystics when there are much prettier names sung closer to home. “Deathsbane” in Ilbar, where awe of the order’s arcane progress can color even the judgment of the ever-logical Ilbaret. Simply “saviors” among the Shards.

“Soulbreakers” is a less-pretty name, but the Vigil have made it clear enough they are just as flattered by poetic fear as by praise. This name comes from Kiwoda and many other realms of northern Anseth whose peoples fear and loath the Vigil. They condemn them as butchers who stamp out innocent ancestral mystics for what Ceslonians slander and demean as “witchcraft.”

To this the Vigil answer that they have Naibora’s blessing. It matters not to them that the academic magic of Naibora has long held more in common with that of Ceslon than the ghostly village elders and spirit-calling still cherished in the north. To Naibora and its people, the difference matters even less.

Naibora sprang the Empire of the Southern Seal. Long after its last empress laid its imperial ambitions to rest and ushered in the Age of Splendors, its pride will suffer no one to stand free of a power that the Topaz Throne greets as an equal. What would it say of proud Naibora if Kiwoda, a nation of fishermen and merchant-sailors, could live without deference to the order Naibora depends on?

With the Vigil’s power so clearly ascendant, it’s easy to forget how uncertain their start was.

They emerged in 1284 V.R. just three years before the Reborn Empress Binusi began her conquests. In those early days few other mages took these portentous neophytes seriously.

It was hard to do so when they introduced themselves with rankings produced from thin air–Junior Inquisitor this, Inquisitor-adept that. The up-jumped zealots claimed they’d “purify the arts magic.” That they wielded some unheard-of new spellcasting! Worst of all, they followed a single nameless mage: the Grand Inquisitor.

The Grand Inquisitor’s identity remains unknown. A towering figure of seven feet / 2.13 meters in height, they are distinguished by the gothic plate typical of Stoßdär–a rune-bolstered suit glistening and faintly iridescent over chainmail and robes, all jet black. From their left hip there always hangs an enormous broad-bladed Königinsmesser, a “queen’s knife” which is in truth a murderous two-handed sword distinguished by its white-leather grip, glossy black fittings and scabbard lacquered in cloudy crimson.

Speaking through the helm’s ever-sealed visor in a distorted bellow with an accent that changes during every appearance, the Grand Inquisitor is reputedly one of the greatest martial artists of this age.

They are inarguably its mightiest mage.

Yet at first there were few who cared to let them prove it. Whatever early triumphs the Grand Inquisitor forged by will, spell, and spite, there were none present to see, and few who would believe the outsize claims the dour figure put forward.

All that changed when Evard the Wizened, often called the greatest invoker in the world, stepped forward to vouch for the austere figure’s prowess. He told a story of standing alone in the night amidst the ruins of an ancient watchtower, nearly overwhelmed by wraiths and the vampires who summoned them out of the Forsaken Ways–the same godless realms of liminal space and permeable reality that the Grast call Untrammeled. His voice shook with awe and no small fear as he described how the Grand Inquisitor descended–in a storm of lightning, in ten conjured webs of scything iron wires wrought from the empty air to lay waste the whole horde at a stroke.

Then the Vigil eradicated a nest of necromancers accused of plotting to kill Vislyka, crown princess of Temana, and use her corpse for a puppet. A witch-cult of demonic ascension fell beneath Hest amidst ruins from the Age of Splendors. A rogue court sorcerer met his end in a spectacular mountain-top duel against the Grand Inquisitor themselves while the King of Cumas watched through a spyglass.

The Vigil’s successes mounted. Their numbers grew. Even vaunted orders like the Brethren Warlocks and Arcane Alliance, kept alive through the Loar War by veteran survivors from the Age of Splendors, conceded the new order’s power.

Then came the great battle of their time, and with it, the Vigil’s leap from fame to the pinnacle of glory.

The Vigil’s deeds in the long war against Binusi from 1287 to 1291 V.R. made them living legends, and need more space than this entry alone can offer. Afterward, no one could deny the Inquisitors’ importance or their power. Monarchs grudgingly opened their countries to the burgeoning order. Recruitment swelled. The Vigil steeled themselves to the long task of rooting out rogue magic across Canno.

Above all, they sought witches and necromancers.

With Binusi’s soul-binding now etched on its public memory and its new queen Ashokira owing her own rise to the Grand Inquisitor’s support, the storied kingdom of Naibora lent its political weight to the Vigil’s efforts in Anseth. A tacit alliance fell in line behind them and the armies of their Darkbreaker Coalition. Political and arcane power alike placed ever more pressure on those nations with anything to say against the Vigil’s encroachment. Even communities in the more distant reaches of Canno who fear and distrust mages were willing to accept them. After all, if the Vigil’s investigations found anything, the people they executed were by definition local mages, and the Inquisitors left–fewer mages in the end!

Stoßdär’s people, along with most other kingdoms in the Black Havens, emerged early as the Vigil’s staunchest supporters. Necromancers and various undead enclaves once flourished in the empty tropical hills and dead volcanoes of the Black Havens. Vampires and their lesser undead thralls menaced any who traveled too far from the safety of their harbor towns.

The other enclaves went deep into hiding after the Grand Inquisitor led a lightning strike on their core at the mountainside necropolis of Nachmord in 1292 V.R.. Flanked by five subordinate Inquisitors, the dread figure publicly executed the head necromancers of the necropolis on the battlements of Helenenburger Tor by peeling the outer flesh from their genitals with kinetic magic and inducing arcane-swiftened rot. Hidden or no, their fellows were shortly hunted down and butchered in similarly gruesome fashion.

While the Vigil’s concurrent quest to purge witchcraft has no monolithic villain such as Binusi to justify it, more and more peoples have been persuaded to see it as an equally righteous task. Witches harness strange and unquantifiable magics. If it’s even magic that they harness–who can say? Wouldn’t they live in towns and cities with civilized people if their intentions were benign, rather than secreting themselves away in mazework crags, old forests, decaying bogs and the half-collapsed planes shaped by beings that should be forgotten? Isn’t the discomfort stirred at the very notion of a witch a warning in itself?

It’s often easier to form clear ideas of the Vigil’s chosen foes than the order itself. Despite fame and infamy alike, the public knows little more of the Vigil’s origins than they did before Binusi’s war.  Their magic behaves like no known casting form, and most full-rank Inquisitors have kept even their names from public knowledge.

The Grand Inquisitor seems to have sprung from the ether; beyond their austere appearance and fanaticism, arcane scholars believe they may be the most naturally powerful mage of the era. None can explain how someone so strong went unnoticed for so long–surely, such a prodigy would’ve been the prize pupil at any arcane institution they attended.

Conspiracy theorists suggest countless ideas about what lies behind the Grand Inquisitor’s stark sallet helm with its eye-obscuring crystal lenses. Some whisper that it’s the revenant of an expecting mother whose child was rendered stillborn by a necromancer, others a demon sentenced to this righteous crusade by the Pantheon in a final bid to redeem its wretched soul, still others an agent of divine punishment on behalf of some forgotten god of justice.

Whatever the Grand Inquisitor’s origins, whatever the truth behind the fluted visor, one law holds: there is not a single mortal on Canno who can face them alone and live.

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