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The human body contains mana, the life force that can be transferred for use as a source for magic. The individual's capacity for mana slowly grows with time as the person ages into adulthood, finally reaching its limits during middle age, and then steadily declines. A mage must take care to control the amount of mana they utilize, as using too much at one time can sap their life force and lead to their death. However, a mage can substitute the mana of others for a magical source with no cost to themselves, transferring all the risk to the victim and leaving their own mana intact for use in less risky endeavors. The Incan empire is a brutal regime that is built upon magecraft, the use of magic to shape the natural world. It expands its territory through the conquest of its neighbors, taking captives as slaves to use as fuel for their rituals. These victims are ritually sacrificed on an altar by Incan priests, who use the mana released from the death of the victim as fuel to power their spells. However, this has the potential of backfiring. This system creates many enemies among Incan neighbors, who may band together or fight to the death against them, knowing what will happen to their people. It also can lead to slave revolts among captives. Luckily, magecraft seemingly provides an alternative solution.

Within each male sperm cell is a microscopic organism known as animalcule, a complete preformed individual representing miniature versions of human beings. These preformed humans develop and enlarge into fully formed human beings through the process of conception and birth. Magecraft allows individuals to bypass this long and convoluted process to create life in order to create a perfect servant loyal to its creator, known as a homunculus. These homunculi are grown within a specially built cauldron designed to hold magic brews. This brew is filled with various ingredients, such as eye of newt, as well as other lay ingredients, such as cow intestines and the "seed" of a male. The resulting "child" emerges from this concoction as a fully grown adult, bound to obey its master's commands. Although they are intelligent, homunculi lack free will and individuality, making them the perfect servant.

The Incan empire have considered the potential of swapping out captives for homunculi for the purpose of using them in their rituals. On the surface, the benefits are obvious. Creating a literal slave race bound to your will would make methods of control much easier and cheaper, mitigating risks. As they are created from magic as adults, they contain all the mana they need at birth without having to go through the long timeframe of aging to an appropriate level, saving time. In addition, they can be grown in bulk, as the ingredients aren't exactly rare. As such, the theory of replacing captives with homunculi in the flesh economy is sound in theory. What would preven this system from working?

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15 Answers 15

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Put quite simply, sacrificing an homunculus will not gain a net increase in mana.

Creating an homunculus costs mana. Sacrificing an homunculus gains mana. However, because no process is 100% efficient, it takes more mana than a homunculus contains to create one, and sacrificing it yields less mana than it contains. The cycle is therefore a net loss.

Sacrificing humans, for all that they tend to not want to be sacrificed, yields a net gain, even if relatively small due to the inevitable devaluation of human life that sacrificing people in job lots would cause. It doesn't cost mana to grow a human.

The math is simple: Human sacrifice = net gain. Homunculus sacrifice = net loss. No doubt it was tried, and found to be disappointing.

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    $\begingroup$ I endorse this answer. $\endgroup$
    – Devio52
    Mar 16, 2022 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ Or go to the other extreme: Homonculuses release so much mana that anyone who tries to use it will OD. Maniacs still try it on occasion; they usually die spectacularly grisly deaths (maybe they age decades instantly?) $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Mar 17, 2022 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ Even if the creation-sacrifice process is 100% effective, you basically gain a mana-battery but still no net source of mana. While this (and even with some loss) it would be worth it for that purpose, you still need to get mana from somewhere to store $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 17, 2022 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ If the process is moderately effective, the priests can create and sacrifice homunculi made from the slaves, and keep the slaves alive for non-magical purposes. Not killing the slaves also fixes most of the civilization's problems stated in the OP $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2022 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting side-effect of this answer: it's not worth it to sacrifice your own homunculi, but if you can get your hands on someone else's, it's still a net gain for you. $\endgroup$
    – Michael W.
    Mar 17, 2022 at 19:26
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Good luck sacrificing homunculi.

They are freaking incredibly tough. You think one is dead but you have got no mana from it. Then you check and not only is it not dead but it is getting back up. Excessive measures to ensure death prove not excessive enough. People tell stories about times you get the mana from the sacrifice and then later you lose it again because the homunculus has claimed it back and is going about its business.

People die so easy in comparison. The priests got lazy - a litty stabby stabby and you got your mana. Easier to stay with people.

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Disaster followed.

They sacrificed homunculi, there were earthquakes, storms, drought, and other disasters. Whether the gods were offended, or the mana was bad, or the thing was a total coincidence, anyone who suggests trying it again will find himself the next sacrifice.

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Homonculus mana makes the absorber servile, much like the homonculus it comes from. Even the most ruthless tyrant ends up a will-less servant carrying everyone's water after they try it. Not ideal for ambitious young Incas.

You could riff on it and have it that some who tries it actually end up as very nice, humble people.

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MAKE THEM FEEL IT

The homunculus suffers for its master. It does work, it takes hits. It dies for the master. But it still feels all the pain because someone has to.

In rare cases the pain the homunculus feels can be shared by the master.

It most commonly happens when the homunculus is unconscious. If it is unconscious but not yet destroyed then any suffering its body feels is transferred to the master. Although the physical impact is absorbed, the homu is not consciously present to absorb the subjective experience of the impact so the master feels the pain instead. E.g The master may feel his leg to be broken even though it remains intact. This is more severe with homunculi that have already endured excessive suffering, and whose master's have accrued much karmic debt.

Forming a connection between the masters and their homunculus can increase the cost of the sacrifice to the point where it is no longer economical to sac them for mana because it also costs life force. Some people in your story might do it, but it's not generally profitable. You don't get back more than the value of the thing you sacrificed or else the system is broke.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a great idea, but bypassed by using slave-created homunculi. The slaves feel it rather than those sacrificing the homunculi for mana. $\endgroup$
    – Mar
    Mar 17, 2022 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Martin The Homunculi are bound to thier mage's will. If the mage is a slave, then not only have you not eliminated the risk of an uprising, but you've made an uprising much more dangerous by guaranteeing it will be in the form of mages commanding armies of perfectly loyal soldiers as opposed to disorganized common folk. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 18, 2022 at 13:29
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Mana only exists in free-willed spirits. Male sperm contains the animalcule, but the female egg contains the anima that inhabits the animalcule. If you try to create an homonculus out of both male and female gametes, it turns out to be no different than a fast grown rebellious normal human.

But that is not all: as I said, mana is tied to the free-willed spirit itself, to the point that it is almost inversely proportional to innocence. So if the spirit (or mind, if you are a materialist) has not developed with the magically grown body, its will have the mana of a newborn baby.

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TL/DR: Mana is not released from the death of the victim. Mana is borrowed from the victim, then given back. Mages also get exhausted after using too much mana.

To answer your question, stealing mana from homunculi is dangerous - when the homunculus dies (this cannot be avoided), the stolen mana becomes dead and can severely weaken or even kill the user.

Mana is innate. Humans are born with it, and their capacity for mana grows with the passing of time until it reaches its peak - then slowly declines (much like, say, a person's height). Hence, the strongest mana comes from the user themselves, so the most powerful spells are cast only by the user's own mana. However, it IS possible to take mana - not without consequences, of course. Mana, when borrowed from a victim, can be used to shield the user's own mana. When a user takes a victim's mana, the user can cast spells with the victim's mana to protect his own mana. The victim, on the other hand, is left without mana. He is powerless until the user returns the victim's mana.

Here is where another factor should be added: exhaustion. During normal circumstances, mana can run out if a user casts too many spells. When the tank is empty, the user will have to wait before his mana regenerates again. However, when a user takes a victim's mana, the stolen mana is immediately returned to the victim when the user's tank runs empty.

Mana can be returned in a variety ways. Remember that humans only have so much capacity to store mana. The first way to return mana is willingly - that is, if a user decides to give the mana back to the victim. The second way is burnout: if a user runs out of borrowed mana, then that mana is returned to the victim by default. The third way is by death: if the mana is too much for the user to handle, the user dies because their capacity is not large enough to hold their own mana and the stolen mana at the same time.

This is one of the main reasons why homunculi are not used for mana swapping. Homunculi already have a full capacity for mana when they are created; hence, many of the mages who steal mana from homunculi die when their capacity is overstuffed..

But what happens to the mages who don't die that way? Let's say a mage was actually strong enough to hold all the homunculus' mana at once. What would happen to him? This brings me to my next question.

What if the victim dies while the user still has the victim's mana? The user can't return the stolen mana to anyone, so the dead mana is stuck inside the user's body. Here, one of three things can happen.

Firstly, the dead mana can eat away at the user's own mana, so as all the mana decays, the user is eventually left with nothing. Secondly, the dead mana could merge with the user's own mana, resulting in an abomination. In this case, the user can no longer cast spells correctly due to his warped mana. Third (and arguably the most gruesome), the dead mana becomes infected and spreads throughout the rest of the user's body, corrupting his mana until he dies a slow and painful death.

Now, it wouldn't be outrageous to say that homunculi die when their mana is stolen - after all, mana is their very foundation. Therefore, mages tend to stay away from swapping their mana with homunculi. The consequences are simply too grave.

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The most direct approach would be that, due to their different origins, homunculi don't possess mana, in the same way they don't possess free will.

If that doesn't work, they can have only the minimum needed for survival. Any working would be fatal to them, and produce a barely useful minimum of mana, possibly even less than it took to create them. Combine this with the effort of creating them, and you'd have to breed (and temporarily feed) a battalion of single-use homunculi for a single spell.

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A child's mana (or a homunculus's) is linked their parent's. This is a part of the natural order that helps parents train their children in magic, and also is partially responsible for the devastation felt when losing a child. Normally a parent may have a dozen children with a few surviving to adulthood. The mana drain on the parent from these few losses spread out over several years is noticeable, but recoverable. However, the natural order is less forgiving at scale, when mages start trying to use bulk homunculi. Each homunculi spent drains the parent a little bit, and too many too quickly can be fatal. Thus, a hybrid system was created where slaves are captured, and they are used to generate homunculi, who are not linked to the mage syphoning their mana.

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They Require Mana to Create

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Human beings naturally draw mana from the Source at the Earth's core. First to be alive. this takes 9 months. Second to grow. This takes maybe 18 years. Third to cast spells. The only cost here is time.

When you create a humonculus you have to cram 20 years of mana into the thing to create life and grow it to full size.

After spending all that mana you CAN sacrifice the humonculus and get back some of the mana. But what would be the point?

It is the difference between burning wood from trees, and making a machine to filter carbon from the air to burn. The machine costs more energy to run than it creates.

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  • $\begingroup$ Re: energy released from burning trees. That's an example comparable to sacrificing a human for magic energy, since the tree accumulates energy it gathers from the sun, and it's destroyed in the process of burning it. Similarly fossil fuels are chemical energy gathered from the sun and then stored for eons in slowly-decaying plant/bacteria matter. $\endgroup$
    – Mar
    Mar 17, 2022 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin That is what I was going for. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Mar 17, 2022 at 23:45
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Homunculi don't have full mana because they're created only from sperm.

Basing this on @Ivella's comment. The homunculi can function well for mundane purposes, but because they are not created from both sperm and egg, they don't have the full mystical characteristics of a natural creature.

It's even possible that the mages aren't even clear on this. In a pre-technological culture that believes, like @Ivella says, that a person "comes a sperm" (actually they'd say "from the semen" since they haven't observed sperm cells), they don't realize there is a female contribution which is also crucial.

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You already established your rule why it wouldn't work:

The individual's capacity for mana slowly grows with time as the person ages into adulthood, finally reaching its limits during middle age, and then steadily declines.

The questions that need to be answered are:

  • What is mana? Actual life force, spirit/soul, blood, calories, bodyheat?
  • How does one replenish mana? A potion, food and drink, time?
  • Can homunculi ingredients be used as mana?
  • Does a created homunculi only contain the ingredient's mana at birth with the capacity of an adult?
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Mana from different sources do different things.

Why not use animal sacrifices instead of humans? Because while each animal's death releases a comparable amount of mana as a human's death, it's not the sort of mana the Sacrificer tribe needs for those spells and rituals where they use human sacrifices.

Animal mana is useful...to an extent

You can draw moderate amounts of mana from animals (and humans) without killing them and small amounts without harming them. That's one reason why witches and wizards sometimes have familiars - they can tap into their familiars' mana for certain spells and brews and rituals.

The Sacrificer tribe does, in fact, use the mana from killing some animals for other spells, just like many other tribes do. But for example when you want to unleash an earthquake on a neighboring tribe, augury mana won't do, nor will clairvoyance mana, so you can't use the mana released by killing birds and rabbits and cows and sheep. A bear might release suitable mana, but they're dangerous and difficult to capture alive.

Human mana is very versatile

Mana drawn from humans is very versatile and can be channeled and transformed into mana for most any magical effect. Much like stem cells can develop into any type of cell the body needs. Once transformed, that mana is no longer versatile. You might be able to reuse some of it for something similar, but you can't turn animation mana into scrying mana or fire mana into wind mana.

Homunculus mana is the wrong kind

The mana used to create a homunculus is the sort used for animating inanimate objects and growing plants and animals. Killing/destroying it releases that mana, but it's no longer versatile. It can only be used for similar uses - growing crops, moving statues, etc. And you get less usable mana out than you put in.

In theory you could sacrifice a large group of homunculi and reapply some of the released mana to animate a giant statue or grow a vegetation wall. But that's not the sort of magic the Sacrificer tribe is interested in doing. Nor are they patient enough to build up the needed homunculi for the task when there's an easier, faster alternative.

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Despite being magical constructs, a crowd of Homunculi contain much less extractable Mana than any single human would

Life energy and magical energy are not the same in quality or quantity. Mages can cast power spells because a small amount of life energy can be turned into large amounts of magical energy. As you mention, over exerting can cause the loss of life so the conversion is not infinite.

Homunculi are made of magical energy, not living energy, so even though they may be pumped full of different amounts of energy for different constructs and roles given, for the use of rituals, life energy simply works to a far greater effect.

In theory, yes, you could farm and mass produce, optimizing the process and finding cheaper alternatives for resource costs, and make a sustainable source of ritual fuel over a period of time.

Ooooor...

You can just sacrifice one person to get a month's worth of the same production in a few minutes. Even more so when you have plenty of living batteries free to be scooped up and held in cages for when they are needed.

This may be a turning point in itself

Since the Sacrifical tribe isn't bothering to try farming mana from Homunculi, in order to resist the growing threat neighboring countries are pooling their resources to build a large scale operation in order to get enough fuel to resist and fight back the enemy. Without sacrificing people themselves, it may be the only way to level the field in having enough mana to not be rolled over by sheer force.

They may discover methods of, rather than producing more mana, using it more effectively by building specialized Homunculi designed specifically to focus, multiply, or enhance mana being extracted from sacrificed constructs.

They learn in the process though that it is in some way tainted and causes environmental problems with local magic to harness mana in such a way.

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He's A Soulja (But Not Really)

So, you want to know why your artificially created being who has no free will or individuality cannot be used to generate mana? It is simply because, unlike humans, homunculi do not have souls. And every mage has been told since they were a wee initiate to the arcane arts that the soul is where mana is generated.

To be clear, "soul" in this case does not necessarily mean anything other than "that thing which lets humans generate usable mana". Think of it as shorthand for some known but hard to study phenomenon. In this case, your mages know that humans generate mana that they can tap into via sacrifice but homunculi do not. So there is obviously some difference between the two. The other differences are having free will or not, and how they are created/born. Taken altogether it would be pretty simple for a mage to determine "The homunculi process causes them to be born missing some fundamental aspect of humanity which allows us to generate mana. We call this aspect 'the soul'".

The nice thing about this from a story telling perspective is that it opens up a couple of different plot hooks you could explore. Maybe someone creates a homunculus that is able to generate mana and has to keep the knowledge secret from his rivals. Maybe a homunulus develops free will but has to hide it from it's evil master. Maybe the real problem with the creation process is a lack of feminine energy, which gets discovered by a rogue female mage. You don't even have to really delve into the religious or spiritual ramifications of souls, since they are mostly used as shorthand for "human sapience".

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