Oaths or vows, when magical, are self-enforcing promises. Geases are obligations or fates imposed by others. Oaths and vows are an extension of nymic magic because they are verbal and are very often done by swearing in or by a name.
The penalty for breaking an oath can be anything within the magical powers of the binder, but it is most commonly to lose some amount of prana or health or both, or to suffer a certain amount of bad luck. The penalty can be lethal.
Generally, the holder of the oath, the party the oath is sworn to, can absolve the bound party, canceling it. Absolution, like binding, is generally done face to face.
Geases look similar and may be combined with oaths, but may not really touch on nymic magic. You can bind a geas on someone using telepathic hypnosis, or nymic magic, or as its own type of thematic magic, or simply with a sufficiently potent and tightly aspected burst of prana. A geas is always backed with leaven. The subject must then obey the terms of the geas, which, if you are careless or cruel, they may not even know. Generally, binding a geas must be done face to face.
Almost all jinn and some folk of other races have True Names connected to life-long geases that let them bind themselves with an oath, simply by swearing by their Name.
Since the esoteric economy largely runs on geas contracts (mostly voluntary), meddling with geases is the esoteric equivalent of forgery or counterfeiting. But of course it happens, though it requires a high level of skill in geas binding.
The ease or strength of binding someone by oath affected by:
Coercive factors make it easier to cast the oath if they are "willing" (give in), but also easier to resist, throw off, or remove it. Effectively, coercive factors make it easier for you to absolve yourself of the oath.
If you flat-out did not take the oath but they impose the command on you anyway, it is called a geas q.v. and is much more difficult.
Oaths enforce themselves by marking the oathtaker as foresworn, by direct punishment, or both.
Usually, the mark is purely psychic, presenting itself to the audience as an intuition.
A one-time alert (a "ping") is easier than durably flagging someone as an oathbreaker. If you didn't catch the one-time ping, you missed the news.
Oaths are harder to impose (take more skill or more energy) the wider the audience they address when they are broken.
It is easier to alert someone present than someone remote. Only the caster or designated third parties can be alerted remotely.
Alerting the following people runs, easy to hard, in this order:
An oath or geas often comes with a penalty for breaking it. Example penalties, roughly in order of increasing severity and divided into three eschelons:
You cannot inflict a penalty in an oath or geas that you could not inflict by magic in person. Just about any nymic mage (and therefore their deputies, and therefore potentially anyone) can jam or zero out your psychic energy. Many can inflict the rest of the first eschelon. You need considerably more firepower for the second or third eschelons.
Inflicting penalties increases the cost/difficulty of imposing an oath or geas, and it gets harder as the penalties get worse. How much harder? Imposing a madness penalty could drive you mad; imposing a death penalty could kill you.
Swearing an oath by or in the name of a higher power adds a complication. You may get noticed by the higher power, and it may decide to take a hand, chiefly by adding to the penalties of oathbreaking. It all depends on their interest:
"You know, I don't think Thoth cares a lot if you're lying to me. He hasn't been in the public eye for some time and I doubt he's even heard of you."
On the other hand:
"Why, yes, I suppose that, as god of scribes, Thoth does preside over software nowadays. That might explain why your computers and phones and streaming TV and car controls are all now bricked, you lying bastard. Oh, and as to your bank record..."
The widespread "I swear by my name" oath is low-level, as is "I give my word," "on my honor," and their equivalents. It pings if you lie or don't mean your promise but doesn't leave you flagged and is only noticeable to those prana-sensitive, Receptant, nymic mages, and the like who are present at the time. Trouble is, lots of Sundered people are at least a little prana sensitive and almost all the nonhumans are.
The Grand Norman loyalty oath to the Crown flags you when you deliberately work against the Crown's good (which need not be when you disobey: "You are not in possession of all the facts, sir, or are an idiot." Tax evasion and smuggling don't count either. Gun-running could, depending on who they are run to). It is detectable by nymic mages or the Receptant in your presence.
The Grand Norman military oaths flags you if you are trying to make Grand Normandy lose a combat, and is detectable by nymic mages or the Receptant. They do not flag you for every infraction. This is for two reasons: (1) Such hyper-critical oaths would be very hard to "sell" and would create an instant and massive black market in illegitimate absolutions, and (2) It would keep the disciplinarians far too busy and drown serious problems in a sea of petty insubordinations.
The Dedicated Cavalry oaths about sex flag you if you, hm, violate them, and are detectable by nymic mages or the Receptant.
An oath with a condition of fulfillment simply stops when you fulfill it. "I promise to serve you for seven years." Seven years of service later, it's gone.
You can be absolved of an oath by the party you swore it to, or their duly appointed deputy. Grand Normans traditionally use the phrase Ego te absolvo when they do this. There's no magic in the words, but going to the effort of saying the words makes the act of will definite.
When you are absolved of an oath, it simply goes away. If you are suffering an ongoing magical penalty, it stops: the flag goes away, the psychosomatic illness ends, etc. Damage done by the penalty remains, though.
A sufficiently skilled, powerful, and persistent nymic mage can simply remove/"absolve" an oath. Their task is made easier by the same factors that made the oath harder to cast, worked in reverse.
A geas is a command put on you that you did not agree to. It is otherwise like an oath. It is much harder to impose and requires an expenditure of leaven (prana-generating capacity).
People can resist being bound by geas.
Contrariwise, binding a geas on a willing subject is easier the more of these factors come to bear.
Babies are the easiest targets, because they do not and cannot resist. Hence the best-known examples of geases are the blessings or curses of good or evil fairy godmothers.
Geases are hardest when they are unconditional: "You will prick your finger on a needle and die!" is harder than "If you prick your finger on a needle, you will die."
Fays, jinn, and the like use oaths and geases too, more often than humans but also more carefully, because the general intensity it turned up. Penalties tend to be more spectacular. Remember, for instance, that the Olympian gods swore by the river Styx, and the penalty for oathbreaking was a nine-year coma.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010