Wraith: The Forgotten/Chapter One: Welcome to the Shadowlands
The Shadow of Death
The Shadowland is a curious place. It has no sun, but there's still day and night. There are rivers, but they don't always flow in the same direction from day to day. The food tastes wrong, the air is flat and odorless, and the animals and plants don't act like they should. Even so, it's also a place of incredible wonder. In New York, there stands a pair of massive trees with glass bark and iron leaves, surrounded by a forest of lesser rebar trees. Over the isle of Rhodes stands guard a warrior of bronze, eternally vigilant. At dusk, the last motes of Pathos, too weak to touch, float away, almost making constellations against the constant cover of clouds. It is here, in this world, where Wraiths most often make their homes.
The exact nature of the Gloom, as some call it, is somewhat unclear, but most scholars on the subject agree that it is formed of dead ideas. When an animal goes extinct or was proven never to have existed, it is often found wandering the wilds of the Shadowland. When a style goes out of fashion, it inexplicably appears in the stores. When a building is destroyed, and there's space enough, something resembling that building may come into being, sometimes all at once, sometimes little by little.
As a result, the Shadowlands possess a strange sense of anachronism. You'll find the rusted-out back half of a taxi pulled by a centaur down a cobblestone street past a Ground Round staffed by Franco-Prussians, and if you bat an eye, you're the odd one.
Cities of the Dead
Most of the people of the Shadowlands, human or not, live in the cities. This is a bit different from how life is in many places, but that's because of one fact: The various creatures who inhabit the Shadowlands have no need for food or drink. They can choose to eat and drink if they want, and that demand creates a strong luxury industry, but farming on a large scale is not really something that's done.
In addition to Wraiths, who make up the bulk of “official” Shadowlands citizenry, the Agency recognizes sentient ghosts and Astral spirits as capable of applying for citizenship, but they rarely get fair treatment in the eyes of the law and society. Perhaps it's a product of a people who are incapable of truly moving forward, maybe it's simply because people enjoy having power over others, but in the end, anything that's not a Wraith is, at best, a second-class citizen.
Rule of Law
In the Shadowlands, the law is made by an organization called the Agency. The Agency determines how Guilds can operate and interact, they arrest and try criminals and pass down sentences, and they maintain order in the Gloom, by word or by sword. The Agency has been in power since the end of the American Revolution.
Most people consider the Agency to be a fairly reasonable government. It has its flaws, but the laws are fair, they're enforced effectively, and the people have a say in governance. At least, that's what they'll tell you. In truth, they're usually right. But then, there's the occasional dissenter, or somebody who stands in the way of what the Agency wants. Then the sharks beneath decide to surface. A Wraith bursts into flames after stealing from a powerful official, and nobody sees anything. A counter-cultural song goes missing right before it's supposed to hit the radio. Somebody goes to an opposition rally, and they come home with a completely different personality.
None of those stories are true. Anyone who says they are is obviously messing with you. If you hear somebody tell any of those stories, they are joking, and should not be taken seriously. Report them to an Agency official immediately.
Dancers in the Gloom
The Shadowlands are in a constant state of stormy skies, and even at its brightest, the light is muted and gray. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Wraith culture is full of beautiful works of art, music and literature. At the heart of this is the Guild called the Cirque of Shadows, or more commonly the Cirque. They're not a circus per se, but then, the Cirque likes to play with words. The Cirque is a collection of artists and artisans in the Shadowlands, determined to go into Oblivion with a grin and a joke. The Cirque's members produce much of the music, art and literature unique to the Shadowlands, although it's admittedly just cobbled together from bits and pieces of mortal art, and it's stuffed to the gills with morbid humor and sarcasm.
The Cirque has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, as more technically savvy Wraiths come into their ranks. The works of younger members are very stylized and avant-garde, while the oldest members are more inclined toward realism and traditional art. A few Wraiths even date back to ancient Greece, and they don't look too kindly on speaking actors, seeing it as dishonest.
The Agency does not like the Cirque, and the distaste is mutual. Artists are not usually good friends of the establishment, and nothing really changes with death. The Agency would just love to tear them apart, but until they do something that would warrant that level of public retribution, they have to just sit and stew, while the Cirque laughs and sings offensive poems about their mothers.
A Den of Thieves
As much as the Agency despises the Cirque, one would assume that outright criminals would not be tolerate. This is not the case, however. The Society of Spooks isn't a Guild, at least not legally speaking, but it has about the same amount of pull and power. The Society is a network of thieves, mercenaries and assassins that prowl the darkest part of the Shadowlands.
The Agency couldn't care less about this enormous congregation of criminals, because crime doesn't upset their order. A thief doesn't cause the Agency problems unless that thief is stealing from them. Hell, the Agency isn't afraid to hire out a thug or hit man if it means they can keep their hands clean.
The Society itself is a fairly diverse bunch, which acts more as a group of contacts, shared resources, and a few crooked lawyers, than it does like a true guild. There are certainly members who will be happy to train a new guy, mostly for the sake of professional pride, but they don't really have a unified ideology. The mercenaries look down on thieves and assassins as cowardly, thieves look down on assassins and mercenaries as needlessly violent, and assassins look at thieves as wasted talent and mercenaries as loud idiots.
Builders of the Dead
While destroyed buildings can sometimes appear in the Shadowlands, it's not always enough. Sometimes, they take forms that are useless for the average person, other times, there's a need for a building that isn't going to be knocked down for a long time.
When something in the Shadowlands needs built, it usually falls to the Artificer's Guild. Often derided as dullards and schmucks, if not for their hard work, the Shadowlands would collapse into disarray, as they are not afraid to remind people at every possible chance. In addition to the architects, the Artificers also make up the bulk of artisans, scientists and engineers in the Shadowlands. Basically, anything that gets made or done for largely practical purposes.
Artificers are laughed at, but only so much, seeing as they are the only group that has a reliable working knowledge of Soulforging, a strange mix of art and science, an arcane Alchemy that allows the forging of ephemeral matter into useful products, including weapons lethal to Spectre and Wraith alike.
Labor and Materials
The art of Soulforging requires materials, and mere Essence is not sufficient. The preferred material is ghosts or Astral animals. This brings up an uncomfortable question that most simply ignore. While many ghosts are totally senseless, just recordings of the past, quite a few ghosts are completely sentient, and astral creatures are obviously living. What gives Wraiths the right to kill these creatures for bricks and mortar?
Many Wraiths try to rationalize. “Ghosts don't feel pain, so it's fine.” “Astral creatures are just imaginary.” “I need this more than he does.” In the end, though, it's quite apparent that what they're doing is an extreme form of slavery (although regular enslavement of ghosts isn't uncommon either).
Some Wraiths actively try to fight for the rights of ghosts, noting that the difference between a Wraith and a Ghost is the difference between human and neanderthal. They're so incredibly close to the same, that treating them differently is silly. These people are considered foolish. Ghosts and astrals have always been slaves and raw materials, and that's how it is. Some steps have been made, and ghosts and other ephemeral creatures can gain citizenship, if they can navigate the byzantine, corrupt court systems. In the end, though, the status quo is even harder to change among Wraiths than it is among the Quick.
The Shadowlands, of course, are not the only place that Wraiths have to worry about. There's a much more terrifying place, a place where only the most wicked and terrifying spirits live. The Spectres live in the dark realm known as the Labyrinth, so named because only Spectres can reliably navigate.
On the other side of the cloud barrier above the Shadowlands, the Labyrinth lies, looming above the Shadowlands at all times. The clouds sometimes get whipped into a frenzy, and many believe that's when Spectres are getting agitated. Sometimes, the clouds tear open, and the Spectres attack, raping and pillaging whatever they can get their claws into. They drag people off to the Labyrinth to play their sick games, they tear buildings apart and attack Wraiths, and they just try to cause as much suffering as possible. Nobody has any idea why they do this. Are they motivated by some higher (or lower) power? Do they even have free will? Or are they just sadistic monsters?
Perhaps the place they inhabit can offer some insight to their nature. While the Shadowlands are a reflection of the lives and dreams of people, the Labyrinth can be seen as the reflection of people's fears, and the dreams of monsters and madmen. The place is built upon horrific symbolism, and it works off the logic of nightmares. Some believe that a nightmare is exactly what it is. The Labyrinth twists on itself, a never-ending maze of fears and insecurities.
The curious thing about it is, despite how terrible it is, almost every Wraith has visited this place and returned. In times of extreme stress, a Wraith is assaulted by their Shadow, dragging them into the Labyrinth by its sympathy with the place. These Homecomings are terrible, yes, but they're much more controlled and subdued than the howling madness that is the rest of the Labyrinth. Whether it's because the Shadow deliberately chooses a relatively safe place, or some strange occult force directs the Homecomings.
Other things live in the Shadowlands than just ghosts and Wraiths. Spirits of death and memory wander the wilds of the Shadowlands, speaking their bizarre language. Weird, spirits stalk the night, . Astral creatures of myth and pseudoscience wander the plains and forests.
Many such creatures are sentient, and a few of those are even willing to associate with Wraiths. Many Wraiths are wary, and rightfully so, as these creatures' mindsets are often very alien, usually dominated by some primal drive to push forward some concept, often to the detriment of others. If you can befriend or control such creatures, however, you can have a powerful boon.