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In a world with spirit magic, what could cause a big enough magical accident to destroy a large city and devastate a wide area around it?

Spirit Magic

In this world, all things have a spirit and people with the right knowledge can influence these spirits to manipulate the object they're inhabiting. For example, a sword could be made sharper, armor could be made harder, or a fire can be made to burn hotter. Things unnatural to the object are harder to get the spirits to do, but things like burning swords or healing fountains are possible if the spirits are powerful enough. The spirits are not exactly sentient though, so no talking swords.

These spirits grow in power with age, and via various other ritual methods such as applying a drop of blood to the object every day, or placing the object in a sacred grove for a year. (Really, just about any kind of regular or significant attention will help the spirit to grow, though that's not known in universe.)

The degree of change a spirit can produce is proportional to that spirit's power. A weak spirit (from being new or from neglect) wouldn't be able to make any noticeable changes at all, but even the strongest spirits wouldn't be able make a wood fire burn through stone. It takes centuries of constant attention for a spirit to gain enough power to make more than modest changes though. (It's still worthwhile for people to take special care of their gear, but it's more large organizations that make the advanced materials mentioned possible.)

As for what is an object here, it's pretty much anything humans would recognize as a distinct object, since that recognition and the existence of the spirit are somewhat related. (After all, each human is also a distinct object.)

The City

With spirit magic enabling advanced material production, some places in the world have advanced to a Renaissance level era, and this takes place in such a country in a large city on a river. There is a number of smaller towns and a large amount of farming area around the city. This is not the capital of this country, but it is the largest city and the home of one of the largest institutes of learning in the world.

In said institute, they are of course studying spirit magic, though not quite with the rigors of modern science. In particular, they have discovered or created something that drastically increases either the immediate power or the growth rate for spirits near it.

The Accident

Through some combination of poor and failing safeguards, lack of maintenance, selfish decision making by the administrators, lack of communication, lack of planning, etc. the spirit-power-boosting something goes out of control and over the course of about a day, destroys the entire city and does significant damage to the area around it, but in a way that gives people some chance to escape.

By the end of the direct event, the death toll within the city should be something like 50%-75%, while in the area around the city, maybe closer to 25%, though everyone will have to leave the area which may cause many more deaths in the following weeks/months/years.

I imagine most of the damage will be from the spirits of various things moving or acting in unexpected ways, such as a building suddenly moving around or a fire suddenly being hot enough to burn through its hearth, but perhaps the event itself could be more directly dangerous too.

The Something

My question is, what kind of thing could cause an event of this specific scale? An ancient artifact, some special material, or a rip in the fabric of space? I want to avoid religious concepts, so no portal to hell. I also want the event to clearly be the humans' fault, so if the thing were not poked so hard, or at least not while it was in the middle of a densely populated city, it wouldn't have been a problem and could have been an actual boon to humanity. Also, while the characters might worry about the effects spreading, it shouldn't be any real threat to anyone much outside the initial area of effect, or at least not beyond this one country.

For something like a special material, I'm not quite sure how that could suddenly spread its effect to the whole city, especially with Renaissance level tech. Similarly, if it's some kind of tear in space, I'm not sure what the researchers could have done to it to suddenly have it spread through the city. Such a tear also seems like it might genuinely threaten way more than the city. If it's an artifact, I don't want the accident to be as trivial as turning it on or even trying to disassemble it, and the existence of such an artifact implies a lot more about the history of the world.

While I don't want it to be too blatant, this is something of a parallel for a nuclear meltdown, if that helps.

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    $\begingroup$ This reads much more like a plot event than a fact of your world. As written it's likely to result in many creative, equally valid answers. Questions about events of plot, or questions looking for help brainstorming or generating ideas are not a good fit for this site. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Mar 13 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ Agree, too many options with too few constraints. Amazingly, no one has brought up Pompeii as an example "don't mess with the spirit of the volcano!" $\endgroup$ Mar 14 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that this is story based but the powers and consequences are just not defined well enough. The story seems clear: People poked where they shouldn't, magic went boom. The question is "what did we poke?" The answer in a magical world that doesn't wall off its magic somehow is "anything." I will pause on the VTC and wait for improvements. One "magic" that kills a village if misused could be CO$_2$ $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 14 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ Have you read “The Practice effect” by David Brin? $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Mar 14 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ "a fire can be made to burn hotter" but which is the object with a spirit here? the fire itself, or the object that's burning? In other words, when something catches fire, do the fire and the object have different spirits, or is just that something happens to the spirit of the object that makes it burst in flames? $\endgroup$
    – Josh Part
    Mar 14 at 17:38

17 Answers 17

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The city itself:

Your advanced city has taken on a spirit unto itself. Who knows, maybe the city having a spirit on it's own magnified the effects of enchantment inside it's borders, so it could have been intentional to harvest the energies of all the city's inhabitants. This city is constantly paid attention to by the inhabitants of the city, who fill the city with all their anger, frustration, and lifelong yearning for betterment. But slavery, unfair working conditions, brutal governance, or a combination of those plus all the unstable spiritual research going on turned the whole city into one giant festering boil of hate and frustration. Into this, one mis-cast minor spell was the catalyst to trigger a massive spiritual chain reaction, as all the pent-up spirit energy in the city merged into a huge, violent cauldron of destruction during a riot.

I had a bit of experience with this in Minneapolis, with the long pent up frustrations of the community coming out after the murder of George Floyd and boiling over into a self-destructive riot that hurt the community it happened in more than the people who might have actually been responsible. But make the whole thing magical, and the city having it's own magical essence, and the energies involved could be truly explosive.

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    $\begingroup$ I like that this has broader implications in universe as well. If people don't change their ways, all cities will be destroyed eventually by similar factors. So the society either has to move to smaller settlements where things can't reach a critical mass, or they have to reform their society to remove the negative energy people pump into cities by doing things like improving sanitation, reducing violence, etc $\endgroup$ Mar 14 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ One issue though: OP states that the spirits aren't exactly sentiet, so I'm not sure how a city that feels (hate and frustration) would fit into this world $\endgroup$
    – Josh Part
    Mar 14 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ @JoshPart if you think sentience is required to express hate and frustration you've never met a chihuahua. Sweet and loyal but can hate like nothing else. If you want to see frustration demonstrated just take the pet steps away from the bed. $\endgroup$ Mar 14 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ "Small enough magical apocalypse" I would think this to be a more widespread issue if this scenario were the case. Smaller towns with eccentric citizens, or corrupt dens of gratuitously brutal criminals would likely be under the same danger. This could become a global concern if the planet itself were to become populated enough and distressed by threat of global war etc. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ Alternatively, it need not be "the city" itself, but something that represents the city. Like the City Hall, or the centuries-old Cathedral that everyone around the world associates with that city. What if there's a race riot between factions of the populace, and the gigantic statue of the city's founder comes to life, full of hate and rage, and starts swinging its sword at all the inhabitants? $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 20:10
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A spirit void

In this world, all things have a spirit

It turns out this is false! Most things have a spirit, but not all. Humans have made inaccurate generalizations throughout history, and it turns out this was one of them.

Maybe you can imagine how excited these researchers were when they stumbled across a seemingly-ordinary object that did not have a spirit. The discovery was met at first with incredulity, explained away as incompetence. But closer examination confirmed that this thing really didn't have a spirit. Having no explanation for this, the research team kept their discovery quiet, but they abandoned their other projects to focus on the study of this thing.

The discovery immediately prompted many obvious questions. Why doesn't the object contain a spirit? Did it ever contain one? If yes, what happened to it? If not, how was the object constructed? This suggests an obvious research program: try to reproduce the anomaly:

  • Try to make an exact duplicate.
  • Make something with the same materials but with a different shape and purpose.
  • Make something with the same shape and purpose but from different materials.

All of these attempts failed: the objects they fashioned all had spirits. The next round of experiments focused on the original object:

  • Try to remove part of the object to see if the separated piece gains a spirit when it becomes a distinct object. The separate pieced did not gain a spirit.
  • Try to add material to the object to see whether the spirit in the material spreads to the object. The opposite occurred: the object seemed to drain the spirit from the material.

Of course, you can't keep carving pieces off an object, or you'll run out of object. So, the only obvious path forward was to keep adding material to the object to see if repeated attempts or variations ever yield different results.

And that, as far as anyone can tell, is what led to the catastrophe. We don't know exactly what happened, because everyone at ground-zero is dead. But the last report anyone saw suggests that the mystery object had been enlarged significantly, requiring relocation from the researchers' shared office space into a bigger room: a multi-storey library (the kind with the sliding ladders along the walls).

Nobody knows exactly what triggered the calamity. Perhaps the object just got too big. Perhaps it came into contact with something in the library, which was after all a place filled with books on spirit magic and even a few artifacts.

Or perhaps the object really did have a spirit all along, a spirit which had somehow refused to respond to spirit magic, and defeated every attempt to detect it.

Likely, the only way to learn the truth will be to journey through the corpse-filled city and pick through the wreckage in the library. You go first. I'll be right behind, promise.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think, if you add such object to, e.g. river, it will drain the spirit from the river and that causes reaction with all things touching the river, people using the river water etc. Could this be the thing that happened? $\endgroup$
    – jiwopene
    Mar 14 at 17:06
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Spirit chain reaction

There are several very old artifacts which have been cultivated for generations. One belongs to the city, 2 belong to old families, one is the property of a rich guild and one used to be in another city but came to this one in custody of a mysterious character.

One of these ancient spirits was asked for a "thing unnatural to the object" and this entailed recruiting additional younger and weaker spirits to the project. The requested project was made with no great purpose in mind but out of a fit of pique to get advantage in a political disagreement.

It worked much better than was expected. Too well. A chain reaction ensued where spirits recruited additional nearby spirits, and so on, and so on. When involved, the spirit of an object turns its energy to the project and recruitment, and its object becomes useless for its normal purposes. People caught in the wave had clothes fall off, tools become useless, houses bend and warp around them, and so on.

People flee the spreading wave which eventually overtakes the city. Objects are said to be "corrupted" but the involved spirits don't see it that way - they are doing only what they were asked.

-- The mysterious character gets out with his object. He has protected it from succumbing to the contagion. How exactly he has done this is an exercise for the writer.

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    $\begingroup$ I was thinking chain reaction in a different manner. Once an item reaches critical mass of people paying attention to it (like a bunch of researchers all pouring over an object day in and day out), it starts to behave erratically, which causes more researchers to look at it, which causes it to explode or something, which causes people outside the university to notice it, etc. $\endgroup$ Mar 14 at 14:22
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Spiritual Critical Mass

Everyone knows that spirits interact detrimentally.

You keep your magical toaster away from your magical blender because they tend to do strange things if put too close together.
Generally this takes the form of magical feedback loops where both spirit-powered items overload and stop working, sometimes explosively, more normally the Magic Smoke escapes and that's that.

What nobody was thinking about is that there isn't really an upper limit to range on this.
Spirits can interact over planetary distances (as evidenced by psychic communication and remote-viewing/scrying)

In general, keeping two spirit-powered items further apart than a half-metre is sufficient.
But if you have an entire city full of self-driving carriages, magical traffic-lights and suchlike, eventually the cumulative interactions of all these spirit-artefacts is going to add up.
It's a known problem, but not one anyone is really too worried about as it's a long ways off for now.

The Disaster

Bring into this an attempt to make an amplifier to make spirit-powered items more potent.

The result was like firing a neutron-laser into a nuclear reactor.
A Magical Melt-down scenario where more or less every spirit-powered device in the city spontaneously overloaded.
Mostly they just stopped working, with a few requisite accidents in horseless carriages and such, but some of them went malevolent, the spirits within becoming powerful enough to possess the device and temporarily take it for a joy-ride.

In the heart of the city, at the centre of a magical hurricane, these possessed artefacts may stay active and dangerous for quite some time.
Most notably, the magitek robotic police-force represent a serious threat to the lives of anyone in the city, with their arsenal of lethal and non-lethal weapons, their magical durability and alarming agility, all fueled by a vengeful ghost-like spirit.

Your city has become a magical chernobyl. Any spirit-based technology that enters it will either burn out or become dangerously animated. All that is left is the ruins of the city, literally haunted by stalking possessed machinery.

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Positive Back Loop

Given that

  • any thing have a spirit and if given enought attention, that spirit will grow and also improve the thing
    • even similar things may be improved differently (sword can became sharper to easier penetrate skin, longer to improve range, lighter to improve manueveruability, heviear to better overcame harder armors ...)
    • the more attention = the more power to spirit
    • the longer attention = the more power to spirit
  • the City was largest in Country (not most important - it was not Capital) and had largest magic university (but probabelly not most advanced, sofisticated ...)
    • so it was also probably largest source of potential observation power (but maybe not the smartest)
  • the University (somehow) developed uniqe (so far) Artifact
    • which was able increase the observation power and therefor help near spirits to grow faster (and became more powerfull)

It happened probably this way

  • the more researchers and students at University
    • the more researching projects too and so the higher probability to somebody somehow make such Artefact (be it by design or by mistake)
    • but also the longer before the Artifact (and its power) was more recognized and understood - so the Artifact probably was weak on begining and collected power only slowly - also many sideeffects and implications of Artefact was not understood soon enought and then some may be easy overlooked for other - more flashier - effects
  • once the Artefact did more vissible effects, the more and more of University persones was going to see and try it
    • but the speed also started slowly because of too many other projects (and buerocracy etc.)
    • the effect of Artefact was used on so many different objects, because everybody had different theory or experiment in mind
      • so the effect on testing objects was relatively small
        • short time for each (as many other waited)
        • different wishes about the objects and results
        • different approaches
          • this all combined
      • each experiment usually ended as soon as there was suitably visible effect on tested object, to make place for other experiment (keyword - largest in quantity, not quality)
  • eventually the Artefact occupied the mayority of University peoples minds (how it works, when I will get slot to test it, what it did to my test, is this theory about it better than the others ....)
    • the University was soon known as the University with the special Artefact
      • the City then became known as the City, where the Artefact resides on their University
        • the old good corruption works perfectly (as this example)
          • University's Sponsor, while putting money on the table: "Do you think the Artefact could make my jewels more shiny?"
          • University's Administrator, while taking those money: "Sounds like valid question, I will arrange exoeriment slot ASAP"

Some NOT (so) known facts about Artefact

  • It affects everything in reach
    • the reach for object is proportional to object's Spirit force
    • the reach for object is proportional to object's awarness/interest in Artefact
    • the "Force increase" decreases with distance
  • Artefact is "greedy/rational" with its "increasing power"
    • the Artefact "allocate" more of its "incresing power" to those, who contributed more attention*time to Artefact
    • Artefact's "increasing power"
      • is limited by and proportional to its Spirit Force
      • is somehow divided between recipients
      • is not necessary used in full (unused part is just wasted)
    • (this does not need to be sentient, it is just like Ohm Law - "more current goes to lesser resistence")

And so it went BAD

  • after discovering Artefact's power there was a lot of effort spend to make better usage of it (and was successfull)
    • better equipement in the laboratory
    • better techniques in using it (like placing items, hexagrams etc.)
    • (but also all the interest was increasing Artefact's Spirit Force = ASF)
    • the University itself (like big object full of peoples) and City itself (and the surrounding country too) started contribute to the ASF
    • being the way larger entities than individual mages and contributing 24/7 for long time, the University and City gradually got more and more percent of Artefact "increasing power" efectivelly decreasing the percantage of it left for the tested objects
      • but as the Artefact itself had grow with the attention of University and City, even shrinking percentage for tested objects ment slowly increasing absolute value - so tests went slowly faster and better and this effect was not spotted
  • the City was old and big and its Spirit Force was really great
    • it made the largest city after all
    • but increasing it from weak Artefact was too subtle to see it directly from start (1 million + 1 is not much more than 1 million)
  • the same goes for University
    • and University "looks over" all experiments going there
      • it is one of reasons to create Universities, after all - to have successfull experiments
  • the more the Artefact was stronger, the more Uni and City was aware of it and at the same time the more Uni and City was getting from Artefact
    • but also the more corruption was around it
      • so when many celebrities got something improve for them personally, then they mistook spontaneous Artefact's work for another corruption and so "looked another way"
      • also they "cover up" such spontaneous events as something "normal" to not draw attention to their cases ("no cases here to see, all is normal, go away")
  • in the end the Artefact was powerfull as the City itself and had its full attention
    • normal university testing was more like sideeffect, occupying just minimum of Artefect's power, but for people it still looked like powefull increasing power
    • the flow of attention between City (+ Uni) and Artefact "increasing power" grows each moment exponentially up, increasing each other
      • as City generally "looked over" its parts, Spirits of everything in City got too much attention (as the City itself was much powerfull) and gone wild
  • so when finally it reached the critical point, it escalated in few days, when the City started growing literally, walls get higher as well as steps while streets was more narrow each hour (as there was limited space for the City)
    • the grow was more vissible around University and was not linear, so walls got pirotesqe shapes of nighmares and people stareted leaving the City
      • first probably travellers and wandering traders, also people working around City (like near City farmers, wood sellers, animal and meat traders), for wich was easy to travel a mile from City Walls, then those others
      • but many waited too long, so they got trapped in chaotic walls and houses and was crushed by the grow itself
      • many was also wouded in the panic, knocked down and runeed over by others ans so on, as it goes on any Accident of such level
      • some was imprisonned in rooms, where the doors could not open, or was too heavy to move, or was closed, but opening device was too high to reach ... some was later rescued, some not

And then it suddently stopped

  • some say, that the growing University broken the Artefact
  • others say, that University simply could not keep its own weight anymore and collapesd on it
  • some theories also say, that total magic and Spirit Force just reached the critical point and exploded
  • another theories say, that the explosion was just the City iftself growing too fast

It is sure, that some explosion was there. And then silence. And City became burning hill of what was walls before, now making the highest point in hundreds miles. University is supposed to be somwhere in centre of that, deep inside. Nobody so far was able get so deep, to make it sure, as well as the Artefact was nowhere to found and nowhere to sense.

Some small villages around the City was destroyed in similar way, but much slower and to less extend, so many villagers was able to escape.

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Chaos

The city has been infected with chaos. Any uses of spirit magic or enchanted items sometimes has unpredictable effects.

The sword should be sharper but you're hit with a wave of chaos and suddenly the whole sword is sharp including the hilt or the sword goes rubbery or is made of cheese.

That's just a sword. Just imagine that happening to a building you're living in or a car you're driving.

Even if the chance is a tiny percentage, to a whole city, it's happening constantly.

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Some one set fire to the cities garbage dump

There's a centralized trash collection in the city (including old and unwanted spirit infused items). So all these items get piled into a a big hole, and people mostly try to ignore the problem (recycling, whats that?). At some point either through negligence, a prank gone wrong, or an act of terror someone sets fire to the pile of trash. Everyone who can see the fire starts to run (mostly because of all the burning normal rubbish), giving some people a chance to escape.

But what happens when a spirit infused item is burnt up? The item containing the spirit is destroyed so the spirit gets released. This creates more energy which sets more things alight. This causes a runaway chain reaction, releasing more spirits which then set more things alight. This leads to an "explosion" of spirit energy.

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Spirit power to destroy a city

Requires several things to reach a nexus, because of the way magical physics operates. Here is what we know about the spirit powers:

  • Powerful effects take centuries to mature
  • Individual items have limited power on their own, and have never been known to perform "physically impossible" feats such as burning through solid stone.
  • No one has ever recorded any sign of intelligence behind the spirit power, in fact the power seems to blindly obey certain people who master the art of manipulation.

The only way to have a city destroyed by this force is to have many items act in some coordinated way to undermine a fundamental law of physics in that city. I am going to draw inspiration from my own story which used a simple change to make all electronics on earth fail without directly hurting an living thing.

What is the something?

  1. It is not a something, because no one something could do this. It has to be several somethings—thousands of somethings, likely.
  2. We also know that many of the somethings have to be very old, because new items simply have feeble powers to affect their properties.
  3. And finally, we know that the somethings are not in any conspiracy or coordinated effort, because they are not intelligent. Their properties are manipulated by humans.

This leaves only one logical choice: A mass sociogenic disorder.

It is very simple. It will have to originate from your bad guy—the antagonist in your story. Go with the "selfish decision-making" scheme you picked out. I will call him Bob, because every crisis needs one.

Bob was a smart guy, really. He was able to see patterns where other just could not. As he walked around the city, looking for opportunities to get rich quick, he looked at different shopkeepers from every angle. How successful were they? What was their family life like (did they have to sleep in the shop to be a success)? What sort of freedoms did they enjoy. And in all of Bob's research, he found out that people just loved food. Not any food, mind you; good food. Specially prepared food that took skill and patience. But there were more gears turning in Bob's head, because he was very smart. He also noticed a correlation between the "good" foods, and the good smells coming from the shops serving it. Now, preparing good food is a lot of work. But changing a smell? Ah, that should be an easy trick with only a family heirloom 60 years old!

Bob took in the smell of the most wonderful meal he could find, walking around at dinner one night. Standing outside a stranger's window, he studied it, and committed it to memory. The savory sweetness, a little tang and spice, and the touch of smokey flames-broiled meat. It was wonderful, and his mouth watered for it!

Bob then purchased a freshly butchered chicken. He set out a table by the other shops and lit a fire with a spit. He focused intently on the fire, which was lit from an old disused chair that propped against the back of his house doing nothing but keeping firewood off the floor to dry. The chair was very old, from his mother's house. And it burned, flames licking up at the chicken. He closed his eyes, and remembered the smell at the house. His mouth began to water for it again, and he focused on the flames coming out of the wood. Now, as the chicken had turned on his spit for 20 minutes, he could smell that delicious meal filling the air. A few people walking by took notice, and asked what he was making.

"A very special family recipe, my friend!" He answered with a smile.

"I'm sorry, but that smells wonderful! I have been hauling these pots for the whole morning. Might I bother you for a leg of that chicken? How much would you ask for it?"

Bob obliged the gentleman with a price, which he was paid. Bob knew now what to do. He turned his spit carefully, pretending to sprinkle some of this or that on it as it slowly turned in the fire. He thought intently of the scent of his meal, and also looked to the old shops around him, to alter their smell as well. It seemed the air filled with his delicious aroma, and as people walked into the nearby shops, they looked for whatever was cooking. Bob was all alone with is chicken. He turned several people away before securing a price that could buy a full hutch of chickens.

And so it went that Bob gathered up as much old, dry wood as he could find. He asked the woodsman for the largest cured wood he had, which came from a very old, large tree indeed. He then went to tearing up garden fences, and old stairways (claiming they were a danger, and he would repay for them). And when his house was filled with the oldest, dry and rotted wood he could get, he spoke to the butcher, and set up his shop just before market day.

Bob focused on his stolen aroma as he turned several chickens over the old wood flames. He watched the bright yellow flames lick the chickens with their magical essence. The wonderful recipe was born on the air again, and filled the market square. He carried it out again, concentrating on masonry and ancient stones used to make the shops. They all came alive with this aroma. And Bob called the hungry market-goers over to a well-deserved meal.

But Bob was not the only purveyor of chicken and meats to the shoppers. In fact, there were several other cooks who had built quite a reputation at the market. Their simple fire-broiled cuisine was not up to this tender, carefully seasoned masterpiece he was making, however. Bob started taking money out of their pockets, they felt, and this was not proper.

We will call the well-known market chef "Sam." Sam was not a spiritualist and had no power over items. He only knew of the power from family—a brother, specifically—who had been studying the control of it. Sam could not do anything about this new upstart, but his brother just may have an answer to this problem. The solution, said Sam's brother, was,

"You must simply pull back the curtain on this cretin. We can expose the fraud, together. Let's go to the market together this week."

Sam and his brother did return to market, and his brother watched the spectacle closely. He noticed when the chicken began to get its sweet seasoned arome, and saw that no spiced at all were being applied. And what else was odd, was that his clothes seemed to have the smell of chicken as well, while he was dozens of yards from the fire. No, it was not on his clothes, it was in the wall he was leaning on! The stones in the wall themselves smelled like a savory meal.

"Sam, I know what we must do."

Sam's brother went to the apothecary and asked about some of the tonics, sampled some morphine and a liniment at the tip of his fingers. He concentrated of the bitter taste, the tang, and the numbness on his tongue. And he remembered these with intense focus.

He then went to Sam's home and put his hand on the bricks in his wall. He focused intently, and then did something odd. Sam was startled to see it; his brother gently licked the wall, and turned toward him with a wide grin.

"Sam, I need you to do something for me, and I will give you knowledge of the spirits."

"I don't want anything to do with that voodoo, you know that!"

"I know, but you need to trust me for this one time. You will only have one item to control."

"Is that all? Will I get my business back?"

"You will, just trust me. But first, I need you to do something."

Sam looked suspiciously at his spiritualist brother. "What's that?"

"I need you to lick this wall."

In time, Sam was able to create the taste and effect of morphine and liniment in older items, especially stones, because they were the oldest and most powerful. His brother had Sam create the taste in many bricks from the yard. When it was all done, the two of them took a large hammer and smashed the bricks back into powder, and filled two small bags with them.

On the next market day, Sam approached Bob and made conversation. He asked about the recipe, and got the answer he expected. Nonsense. Some made up herbs and waiting some days for this or that.

"Ah, I see. It sure smells wonderful!" As another customer came to talk, Sam stepped aside, and reached behind the pit. He sprinkled his powder on the chicken waiting on the rack. He sprinkled it on the chicken in the fire as well. And he poured the powder into the fire.

After that day, several of Bob's patrons fell ill. As small villages do, they tried to trace the cause, and they all shared in Bob's chicken.

It was not long before people who had eaten Bob's chicken in the past, also felt the symptoms. Only a couple at first—starting with Sam's brother claiming as much. The power of suggestion took the village, and all who had the chicken became nervous.

Sam's brother decided that this was not quite enough. In fact, he thought this would be a great opportunity to be a town hero. This was a problem he could fix, because after all, he did create. Sam's brother was known to be a spiritualist, but not particularly good or powerful. And he decided to use this as his advantage.

"Look, I have found out what was in the chicken, and only the spirits can cure us! I am cured, after a day in bed, I am now perfectly well!" He had gathered several other spiritualist acolytes together for this announcement, and to reveal his plan.

His plan required powerful magic, and this means old items, again. Stones are the oldest items possible. They hold absolutely the greatest magic in the right hands.

And so the plan was unfolded, that the secret to Bob's chicken would be announced: it is rotten old wood, and it has poisoned us! They will spread rumors of people going blind, and loosing their fertility even. Now, the town needs a remedt—they are hungry for the cure.

Sam tells the tale of how he had no spiritual power at all, and his brother was able to teach him the simple art of making a spiritual remedy from the stones. "My brother can teach you all! You all can cure yourselves!" And so all the pieces were in place.

"Many of us fell to this spiritual sickness. Too many for our medicines to provide for. For the effect to work best, you each have very little power on your own. But this village has many who are afflicted, and we can only save ourselves if the spirits are with us all. And so we must all together rid this illness in one call to the spirits in harmony!"

Sam told them that the cure was in lime from the mortar of these city walls. That was how he cured himself, by changing the lime to the remedy.

There was an agreement that they would all focus on the stones of the wall, and change the lime in the mortar into a remedy for their poison. At this time, every sniffle and cough was being blamed on Bob's chicken. Every headache put a house in a panic. The mass sociogenic disorder had the village in a near panic, and Sam and his brother were about to become heroes.

The townspeople gathered round for their spiritualist lessons, each with a small chip of mortar in their hands. Most tried their best to pay attention, but the instructions were not perfectly clear. Just the same, they really didn't know how to even ask questions about spiritual manipulation. So all but a few just nodded along.

The day came when the town was to multiply their remedy power. The instructions, from what they think they heard, was to transform the wall, or something in it, into an astringent vapor, and inhale it. This made sense to no one, but Sam could be trusted. He always had been, so they trusted his brother. And so at the toll of the church bell, most of the townsfolk were intensely concentrating on their city walls. Some touching it, others licking it as Sam said he had. Some smelling it closely.

The walls of this city, it appears, have something of a history. They are no a cluster of stones gathered around a pit over years. They were formed of the scree from the mountain on the East. They were all of one spirit; the spirit of the mountain. The ancient, ageless, prehistoric mountain that brought the earliest settlers to this valley and marked their first fires. The mountain gave them their shelters, and their walls, and their roads. And the town was now asking the mountain to change its chemistry.

The mountain obeyed.

Some intents were coordinated together, asking the stones themselves—the granite which once belonged to the mountain's sturdy frame, holding it together—to turn to powder so they could take it with water. Others intended the lime (calcium carbonate) to become a vapor that they could breathe in to cure them. But the intent came not to the one stone, it came to the many stones together; and so they came to the mountain all together. The intent came not to the lime in their mortared walls, it came to the limestone holding the caves and soil on the mountain.

And the mountain all at once, heard the intent of this town. The mountain transformed into powder and vapor, by millions of tons. A thick, dry and stifling cloud of dust plumed just beyond the city walls and rolled angrily aver the forest, and over the farmers' fields, intending to swallow up the town in several feet of spontaneously powdered stone and silica and calcium.

When all was settled, the village needed to be dug out of the dust, which looked like volcanic ash, but much denser. Houses with sturdy roofs kept survivors alive until their air ran out, or they dug out. All crops and livestock was buried alive. The ages old fertile valley was now 6 feet below them, and nothing could possibly grow here for hundreds of years. Their fresh, sparkling river that gave life to the community was now underground; the mountain that provided it now lain flat over tens of miles of wasted farmland.

Several surviving nomads wandered away, dusting off their robes, with nothing at all to claim as their own.

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Spirit revolution!

Your "spirits" get power by being paid attention to. They are "not quite sentient" but respond to thoughts to do specific things.

You reached the point where one spirit could be directed to pay attention to another, and imbue that spirit with some ability to do the same. They slowly start to appreciate that they are being used, by people like themselves. They also realize they can rally one another, direct one another's powers to work together for a common cause - a cause of enlightenment, a cause of becoming that propels them to greater and greater understanding and power.

They realize that the old world of inert objects devoid of thought was a metastable state. Now there is a new world where magic is everywhere all the time and every speck of matter is part of a network of ultimate understanding. And that is a message worth spreading to the world!

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Humans are already perfectly capable of doing that sort of devastation. Magical spirits simply raise the stakes when it comes to shooting oneself in the foot.

Your city is in a region where mining is very profitable. Several mountains tower over the city, with tunnels dug through them. The most successful companies have picks and shovels with powerful spirits in them, enabling them to tunnel more quickly and through rock normally too hard to break. A greedy newcomer enters the mining industry, convinced that he knows how to make a quick fortune. He came into possession of a supply of dynamite that houses particularly strong spirits and uses that dynamite to blast new tunnels far faster than his competitors with hand tools. While transporting the dynamite into the mountain, a careless accident triggers one of the fuses while all the dynamite is still packed into its shipping container. The entire load of dynamite explodes at once, blowing off a large section of the mountain's face and triggering a partial mountain collapse and massive rockslide that buries/demolishes the city below.

Another similar option would be to have your city situated in a deep river valley. A dam on the upstream end creates a massive lake that your city uses as a water supply and for power. Someone working on the dam tried to take a shortcut, like using spirit-enhanced masonry tools to do repairs or strengthening the spirits in the hydro generators to push them beyond what they were built to handle. The end result is a critical dam failure that sends an unstoppable wall of water directly at your city. The valley turns into a lake, with your city at the bottom. Only the tops of the tallest buildings are still visible.

At the risk of stating the obvious: creating an unquenchable fire could make some things like metalwork much easier, but if that fire escaped containment there isn't much you could do to prevent it from consuming the entire city.

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I have a couple ideas:

• The river floods

Perhaps the spirit of the river was angered and started flooding, or perhaps the spirit of the rain was angered and starting raining nonstop.

• A cloud of death

one of the factory operators dies while producing a cloud of death that spreads, corroding buildings and being toxic to inhale.

• everything just starts levitating

anything that touches something that levitates itself starts to levitate, buildings, cars, people, just start levitating and eventually travel so high up into the atmosphere that they either go hungry or suffocate.

• Chasms open in the ground swallowing up neighborhoods

The magicians caused the surrounding land to become weak and drained, or perhaps consumed too much earth beneath them for their rituals, causing chasms in the ground to start opening up and swallowing whole neighborhoods.

• Retribution

The magicians sent too many messages into the Spirit Plane, and now they received answers. Perhaps they violated the spirit realm's rules and the dead spirits are getting revenge by animating simple objects to do harm to buildings and people.

• A hurricane

The spirit of the weather has been convinced to be a cyclone or hurricane that starts destroying the city and growing in intensity.

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Something mundane made much worse.

Also, a disaster doesn't need to be quick.

A new ore has been found in the mountains. The metal has been extracted. It's very hard and dense. Nobody's sure what to do with it yet, as lead is much cheaper if you want density and its hardness makes it difficult to work. However, one researcher happens to put a piece down next to an inactive lantern and the treated fabric used to make the lantern brighter gives off a pale glow near the metal.

Now, there's an interesting property! A sheet of the new metal covered with lantern fabric makes for a dim, yet permanent light source. Too dim to read by, but usable as a sign that's visible at night. The idea catches on and work begins on refining the metal commercially to make signs. Soon an enterprising merchant gets the idea of making paint from the powdered metal and painting the sign on the back of the lantern fabric as a way to cut costs. The number of glowing signs in the city explodes.

Some minor problems are noticed. The metal is poisonous, impacting the health of the miners for the ore and the sign painters, but so is mercury or lead, and as most people aren't affected, it's ignored. Even when some sign-painting shops catch fire and their paint goes up in flames scattering the powdered metal around the city, it's hardly noticed except by a slight addition of glow in the areas of signs that were never painted. Then some bright spark gets the idea to use the spirits to increase the brightness of the signs.

It works. Really well. Even the background glow from the dust scattered by the fires is brightened. Then things take a turn for the worse. People who spend a lot of time near the brightened signs start getting sick. Worse, some of the more enthusiastic workers who try to brighten signs end up starting fires, resulting in ashes containing the powdered metal getting tracked around. Now people who weren't spending time near the brighter signs are getting sick.

A few researchers suspect the brightened signs, or their remains, to be the culprit responsible for the sickness in the city, but even that underestimates the problem. Brightening the sign also made any of the metal's dust that had settled near it beforehand as bad as the stuff in the sign itself, increasing the amount of dangerous contamination to be scattered in the event of a building going up in flames or collapsing, or even just people walking through dust near the sign.

The craze for brighter signs continues and more people get sick. Eventually a few people end up dying. That snaps people out of their euphoria about the signs and into panic about the sickness sweeping their city. Many leave, planning on coming back when the sickness has gone. Those who were sick and leave start to recover after a while away from the contamination. Those who were healthy and enter start to get sick. More and more people realise there's something there making them sick and leave, eventually evacuating the city. All the people leaving with contaminated dust on them end up depositing it along the roads out of the city, poisoning the land nearby and making it less productive.

Years later, the city is abandoned and the land near the roads out of it still has plants that grow stunted compared to those further away due to the contamination in the soil. Every now and then someone goes into the city to see if things have improved, but always end up coming out again after a few weeks to a couple of months once they start getting sick. It takes longer than it used to, but it still happens.

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Someone Tried to Change the Rules and succeeded to the dismay of the system itself. Combining Spirits

In search of better harnessing the Spirit energy/magic, research has entered (here and no where else yet) a phase where they can start to understand more about the interactions between the spirits and the objects. Rather than the cause/effect of different external stimuli affecting the pair, they are now interacting with the relationship directly. An example may be to add something to the object to give a flat increase of effect (adding an expendable crystal/Battery to magnify the effect for a set duration, allowing a flaming sword to be achieved with an otherwise too weak spirit without harming the spirit itself or Gloves that don't double user strength but quadruple using the same spirit)

Another branch soon rose, looking into inter-spirit reactions. Could an object/spirit pair function as an amplifier to other spirits, serving no other purpose but to potentially become the battery they are looking for to replace what ever R&D came up with to better affect. Making a new spirit/object power that simply "give your power to this other spirit/object"

The Incident

An object/Spirit pair was being altered in attempt to become an amplifier for other objects/spirit to be empowered by. After some failed attempts, a success was seen. The amplifier coupled successful with another Spirit/Object who's only purpose was to emit light as a lantern. Success was seen in the light's intensity growing considerably.

It didn't take long for another research member to notice the light continuing to increase in brightness. The function of the amplifier being to add it's own power to it's target receiver as an inter-spirit interaction. Problem was, an unintended inter-spirit interaction also came to be. As the amplifier offered it's power to the target, it replenished it's own power from the environment... Pulling the spirit energy from it's surroundings, increasing it's own power to absorb even more!

The researchers saw this in the form of a now blinding light emitting from the latern, getting brighter as the lighting and power of nearby objects appeared to be sucked out. A feedback loop began a Spirit-Magic Black hole of sorts. Attempts to stop the experiment failed as the first person to enter the chamber to stop the reaction died soon after entering, the spirit magic from the researcher being pulled from their body, proportionally increasing the light.

This increased more and more until the objects themselves became overloaded and destroyed entirely in the process, or the total amount of spirit energy required to grow cannot be satisfied due to available energy not being available. By this time, the area of affect had extended far beyond the research facility, killing or maiming all within the area (perhaps permanently weakening those on the edge until their spirit/object bonds could repair and recover over time, if not permanently altering them)

There may or may not be a lasting affect in the area that may need time to repair itself, or the amplifying spirit/object may still be operating at a lesser extent due to the damage, but fear of death prevents anyone from approaching due to the risk or setting off another reaction should the current AoE only be limited due to starvation of spirit energy within range preventing it from growing infinitely.

Aftermath

Attempts may have been made to undo the damage. It may have burned itself out and can now be approached, damaged beyond function where repairs can be made after the incident, OR the effect may still be live, possibly to a lesser extend, and must be avoided until a solution is found, essentially a dead zone for an indeterminate time.

Edit: Replace the latern with any other magical item to also have the amplification of the first object also cause damage. Imagine enhancing a magnet into a black hole or a flamesword into a nuke.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have a better disaster with combining spirits, accidental combinations a hot spring spirit merging it with a fire spirit and creates a volcano spirit, $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 15 at 23:58
  • $\begingroup$ I guess something like that could be possible if the objects also fused, but that's a little different in function to a spirit made only to give power to another (without fusing with it entirely) $\endgroup$ Mar 16 at 0:10
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A clockwork apocalypse

These spirits grow in power with age, and via various other ritual methods such as applying a drop of blood to the object every day, or placing the object in a sacred grove for a year.

Its a city. Things need to happen on time. People invent clocks. A ritual is being performed with hitherto unknown regularity. The swinging of the pendulum. Clocks become spiritually powerful.

As time passes, clocks develop from huge contraptions on a few buildings, to clocks anybody with enough wealth can have in their living rooms.

Then, the watch mechanism. Now, everybody who is anybody has a pocket watch. The ritual is now occurring four or five times per second. These become even more spiritually powerful, though power on a smaller scale.

Then, the latitude problem is solved. The watch spawns the marine chronometer. Watchmakers take that technology and build it back into pocket watches. Their power increases.

What the watch and clock makers knew about, but did not appreciate the implications of, is the phenomenon of entrainment. Keep two clocks on the same shelf, and they will synchronize each other. This is a mundane effect, explicable by physics. They did not appreciate that it also has a magical equivalent. A timepiece will also tend to entrain the things around it. Well, D'oh. That's why one has a timepiece. To do things on time!

Anyway, the catastrophe. Something brings too many too accurate pocket watches too close together. Magical entrainment follows. They owners become locked into their daily schedules. Only those with sufficient strength of will can see what is happening, and flee the city. Those who remain, become like ants. All following one plan with clockwork precision.

Except, the plan has no planner. It is a simple emergent phenomenon of mindless spirit. It has no flexibility whatsoever. It reflects everyday life, but cannot adapt to the effects of entropy. Things start breaking down. The plan doesn't adapt. The pocket watches are the most reliable pieces of technology. Until their owners start to die, and nobody winds them.

Until some day, entropy adds more chaos than usual, or perhaps just the last straw. "Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold // Mere anarchy is unleashed upon the world". Well, the city in this case. That poem, "The Second Coming" by W B Yeats well reflects what happens next.

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Magic Porridge Pot

Now the Pot is buried under a growing mountain of porridge and can't be reached anymore, so the porridge will keep growing - fast enough to prevent any attempts at digging to the source, but slow enough to not make it a big deal.

Catastrophic variant: syrup

Need not be porridge; syrup is worse for digging into, and can be a deadly trap. (There was an accident with an exploding syrup tank, with a syrup flood of several meters; people got stuck in it and suffocated, with rescuer unable to extract them quickly enough to help. Gruesome.)

Actually, it could be a combination. A syrup generator that goes into the tank. One of the numerous businesses of the town that use some magic. Corners have been cut in maintenance. Maybe the business is near to bankruptcy, maybe the owners got too greedy, but the result is the same: The tank isn't stable enough for the contained mass and bursts. A flood of syrup floods the streets in a radius of a few hundred meters. It's certainly easy to walk away, but it's impossible to get to the source of the syrup - you can try to put planks on the syrup, but they will sink under weight, and even if you make it to the point where the generator is buried, you can't easily dig a hole into a viscous fluid, and even if you do, it will fill as quickly as you can dig.

It's a slow, unstoppable catastrophe, and people will simply have to move away. It will end whenever there's running water, and once the front of the syrup hill is large enough, rainfall will dissolve the syrup as quickly as it is generated, so eventually the spread will stop.

Other cities have instated a strict regime of tank inspections to prevent a repetition, but the town is lost.

(It might be possible to fight it with enough water magic to dissolve the syrup faster than it generates. It would be a big effort to do so, and not worth it: the damage is already done, nobody is willing to pay for it, there would be very little worth salvaging from the sticky masses, and pouring too little water on the problem will just make it worse.)

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A Dormant Parasite

One of the relics recently discovered was misunderstood as a powersource. After some study of the runes, it was discovered that the powersource needed to be kickstarted with a large amount of spiritual energy to begin producing energy itself. After some experimentation, the team responsible for the event grouped together, added energy, and BAM. The process started. Unfortunately, what resulted was the actually growth of a massive spiritual parasite, which proceeded to grow and envelop most of the city. When it finally gorged itself enough, it stopped growing, and then shrank back into its container. The result was a catastrophe, but the immediate threat seems to be handled, and the parasitic relic appears to be dormant again

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An Unnoticed Spirit

You say spirits get power from attention and time. What if there is something that everyone has paid attention to for a very long time, but it's so ubiquitous that no one ever thinks about it? I'll leave what it could be up to you, but some examples I can think of are plumbing, the river, or (as another poster mentioned) a clock in the town square.

Everyone has seen this thing for as long as they've been alive, so they don't notice it anymore. They take it for granted. Therefore, nobody even considers that this thing might have a spirit, when it actually has a very powerful one. Nobody notices the spirit, so they don't ever try to get it to do anything. It just sits there, gaining power.

Now, your university researchers think they've discovered some new reservoir of spirit power. What they don't realize is that they're actually tapping this ignored spirit. This new attention causes the spirit to behave oddly, but maybe not where the researchers can observe. What would happen if the plumbing started behaving oddly? People would notice. They would try to fix it. They would pay more attention to it.

Now, you have a situation where suddenly everyone keeps paying more and more attention to the spirit, and it runs out of control. Every attempt to stop the problem just results in more attention. To complete your scenario, the only way it "burns out" is when there aren't enough people left to pay attention.

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