Armored in Death

Summary: In the Graveheart Protectorate, an afterlife is available to the rich and powerful. For the average citizen, service as necroplate-clad soldiers is their only chance at immortality.

[Essay republished with permission from the Explorers Guild.]

The necroplate suits of the Graveheart Protectorate withstood the advent of crossbows, firearms, and thaumotechnological weapons, but few comprehended the true reasons for their endurance. Before writing existed, the barbarian chiefs felt a supernatural reverence for the black basalt stone found in the long-eroded temples of uncouth antiquity. When an irrelevant warrior carried a piece of it into battle, he found his recently-dead compatriot telling him of an enemy ambush beyond the next hill. After single-handedly slaying the enemy warband, the Blackstone Era began.

The obsidian-like stone was extensively mined over the following centuries, as tribal skirmishes escalated to total war. The Graveheart Protectorate itself was formed by an uneasy alliance between the most powerful warlords, a temporary ceasefire that surprisingly endured well past the date of its termination. By the time any single warlord mobilized, the others deterred them by the grim calculus of power. A chance discovery with blackstone jewelry further ensured that unstable peace turned into a martial meritocracy.

Like the unnamed warrior that officially started the Blackstone Era, the military aristocracy wore fragments of the expensive stone. It preserved the soul of the wearer after death, and allowed them to interact with designated individuals and artificial constructs. Thus, even the most ambitious and cruel excesses were reigned by the cynical fact a slain foe would return to enact vengeance. However, the most efficient troops had a more potent form of the technology.

Necroplate armor was partially invented by happenstance, when a blacksmith dropped a possessed piece of blackstone into a heated crucible. The blackstone emitted an ectoplasmic shield around it, protecting it from both the impact and the temperature. The blacksmith noted some damage to the specimen, but the ectoplasmic barrier was replicated by a local artisan guild. A seamstress developed a reliable method of generating a protective ectoplasmic barrier in a vest, and the direct forerunner of necroplate was developed.

The refinement of necroplate continued over the following decades. Ectoplasm was also made to animate the armor, and a full suit was able to transport even an immobilized or weakened occupant. Those that die while in the suit of armor contribute their expertise and skills to subsequent wearers. There are scattered reports of ectoplasmic phantasms moving the armored suit, or spectral warriors manifesting to help a fight, but these have never been definitely confirmed. Even if true, the lack of reliable reproduction suggests such conditions only occur under duress or exceptional circumstances.

A unique feature of the necroplate is the nature of the soul-capture itself. A suit can be destroyed with heavy artillery, landslides, or similarly judicious applications of force, as it overwhelms the capacity of the ectoplasmic shield within. However, once a person in contact with blackstone dies, other suits (via their spiritual passengers) in the vicinity become aware of the method and attempt countermeasures to it. Thus, even the advancements of mechanical weapons like crossbows and firearms, as well as thaumotechnical directed energy weapons, have not substantially changed the design of necroplate suits. Even airborne toxins and disease have limited efficiency. Aside from physical force, the enemy becomes a significant battlefield threat to a unit only if they are able to consistently devise novel, previously unseen weapons. It is of note that the overwhelming casualty sources for necroplate-equipped units are exposure, disease, dehydration, and the like, and even these are far lower than conventional units, due to the boost to logistical and hygienic insights provided by their equipment.

Despite the development of ranged weapons in many national armies, necroplate military units still use weapons intended for close combat, from swords to blunderbusses. This is due to a recent development in spiritual divination, the ability to glean bits of information from slain enemies. The closer the necroplate equipped units are foes, the greater the chance of successfully intercepting information. This has granted necroplate warriors an invaluable intelligence gathering role, in addition to their traditional role as shock troops. Similarly, their ability to move heavy loads around makes them invaluable as battlefield medics, engineers, and in logistics. Experiments in developing necroplate able to sustain a person underwater are rumored to be in progress.

The Graveheart Protectorate does not have a single criterion for locating the best candidates for necroplate use. Most suits of necroplate have either a single dominant spirit, or a group of spirits, that select a wearer from several candidates. Some are volunteers. Some are conscripts. They include both men and women, citizens and naturalized outsiders, and even the physically infirm. From the disabled son of a merchant to a poor, rural volunteer, all manner of people have donned necroplate to defend the interests of the Protectorate.

The Graveheart Protectorate keeps the technology for necroplate manufacture extremely restricted from outsiders. Foreign attempts at reproducing necroplate for their own uses have been thwarted by the difficulty of acquiring substantial amounts of blackstone. Similarly, the souls within each blackstone artifact or suit determine how efficient (or inefficient) the final product would be. The Graveheart Protectorate has decades, if not centuries, of necroplate use relative to their neighbors, further deterring outsiders from matching them in this capacity.

The Graveheart Protectorate is a nation little-known outside its home region, but it suffers from ill-conceived stereotypes popular even among the well-traveled and educated. Outsiders ignorantly think of undead legions marching forward ceaselessly from ancient tombs, all signs of humanity buried beneath nightmarish obsidian armor. They call for fear of "The Reaper's Reign" or "The Necromantic Nightmare," without understand what the Protectorate had achieved. The Protectorate started as an assemblage of warlords, but ended up in as a place where literally any living citizen can achieve immortality through service. No other nation can be so literal in keeping this promise.