Sep. 16th, 2016

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Nistona is a perfectly circular world, about 100 kilometers across. Its edge is defined by the Barrier, beyond which nothing of value has ever been found. Light, air and water can pass through it normally, but it blocks anything alive from coming in or out. On the outside, a dead world overrun by monsters. On the inside, Nistona.

Despite the desolation surrounding it on all sides, Nistona is quite a pleasant place. The days are warm and sunny, the nights are cool and crisp. Even during winter, it's vanishingly rare for temperatures to drop below freezing. The majority of the half a million people living within the bubble are concentrated in the sprawling coastal city of Kastad, with the northeastern half of the world being dotted with farmland and smaller towns.

Humans are far from the only things living within the barrier. Contained within its isolated ecosystem are buffalo, gazelle, ostritches, and a whole lot of snakes. In the east, there's even the occasional leopard. Farmers raise various poultry, pigs, cows, sheep and goats for meat, and grow potatoes, tomatoes, a variety of grains, and citrus and tropical fruits. Despite having a good chunk of ocean within the barrier, fish - particularly edible ones - are scarce. Fishing is no longer a common practice.

The Nistonan calendar marks 599 years since the destruction of the old world. The cause of this calamity, like the origin of the Pearl that protects Nistona, is unknown.

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Usually referred to as simply The City, Kastad is the only proper city within Nistona's radius. About 80% of the world's population call it home. The level of technology available in Kastad is much like modern Earth's, but not exactly like it - lack of access to the resources from the old world forced a lot of dramatic advances in energy sources. Cars are a rare sight, since travel within Kastad is mostly by public transit and few people have much need to head out into the country. Ethnically, Kastad is quite diverse, despite its small size and isolation. Names originating from a dozen old world languages are all common.

There are a handful of smaller towns outside of Kastad - Meklos to the north, Makasar to the east, Bellville near the center of the barrier, and Kryfon in the northeast. Beyond that is just scattered farms.

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When the old world was destroyed, Nistona alone was saved by the protection of the Pearl. Where it came from, how it works, and why it's here, nobody knows. All that's certain is that, without it, humanity would have been wiped out centuries ago.

The Pearl is a sphere, about three feet across, glimmering with a rainbow of shifting colors. It's fixed at the exact center of the barrier, on the outskirts of Kastad, floating about ten feet above ground level. As far as has ever been observed, no human technology or power can damage the Pearl, or even move it. It has no apparent external energy source, but radiates light softly at all times. The energy coming off of it reads identically to the energy faintly radiating off of the barrier surrounding Nistona.

In addition to its mysterious connection to the barrier, the most obvious function of the Pearl is in awakening Guardians. The first time a person physically touches the Pearl, there's a chance that they will awaken, suddenly and flashily being bestowed with incredible powers that operate outside the laws of physics. The exact rules for what makes a person eligible or not eligible aren't known, but odds of awakening successfully seem to peak around age 13-14 and fall to near zero after 18, and the successes are overwhelmingly female.

A temple has been built up around the Pearl, both for its protection and to make it easier to reach it, in a context where the government can keep an eye on who awakens and who doesn't. Girls who want to try to awaken most often pay the temple a visit around 15-16, to balance having to start too young with the dwindling odds of success as you age. Those who do awaken are contacted shortly thereafter to become Guardians.

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Sometimes called Magical Girls, Guardians are those who have been awakened by the Pearl to their true powers. In day to day life, they're just like normal humans, but they also have the ability to transform into a magically-enhanced temporary form. The body gradually generates small amounts of magical energy over time, which is stored up and released while transformed, allowing for about an hour of combat time before it starts to wane. Transforming is a flashy affair, and generally results in dramatic alterations to the Guardian's hair and clothing.

A few powers are universal to all Guardians. They're much sturdier than humans, being able to take levels of punishment that would kill a normal person twice over and still continue fighting. They can sense open intrusion points between the real world and the Minus World (more on that later). They can cross the boundaries between worlds - this even means they're capable of crossing the barrier, but those few who have ever returned from such a trek have reported nothing but desolation and hostile monsters as far as they could see. Beyond that, things vary - some Guardians get enhanced physical strength to fight hand-to-hand against monsters, others gain control over various kinds of destructive energy, others get even more esoteric abilities. Each Guardian's abilities are unique.

A Guardian's powers are magical in nature, and her heart is the source of her strength. Their strength is amplified by all kinds of strong emotions, and also become more powerful with repeated use over many battles. However, after about five years as a Guardian, power begins to wane. After ten years, few Guardians have any powers to speak of, and are barely even capable of transforming. Thus, it falls to Nistona's youth to protect it.

A last power granted to the Guardians is the ability to call out to the Pearl for a blessing. When all other hope has faded, this trump card can allow a Guardian to gain an incredible surge of power, becoming many times more powerful than they were before - but just for one battle. Once they revert to human form, though, a price will be paid. Some part of their body or mind will be taken as payment for the Pearl's blessing, and will cease to function. Each time a blessing is called for, the price is steeper. No Guardian has ever survived a third blessing.

There are currently 80 registered Guardians.

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Of the many unsolved mysteries of Nistona, the greatest is its enemies. There are monsters in the wider world, and they seem to be focused entirely on the erradication of mankind. Nobody knows where they came from. Nobody knows why they're here. Nobody even really knows what they are. All that's certain is that peaceful coexistence with them is impossible.

The barrier keeps monsters from directly invading and destroying Nistona, but there's a way around it. Adjacent to our reality is another, less stable reality, called the Minus World. It greatly resembles our world - if a building is erected in Kastad, it will eventually come to exist in the Minus World at the same spot. However, nobody would ever mistake one world for the other. The Minus World's sky is pitch black, and none of the living things of our world exist there. More seriously, though, the Minus World doesn't work right.

Physics in the Minus World is, at best, tenuously enforced. Object geometry is slippery, sometimes letting things pass through each other. Sometimes objects merge into each other in strange ways. Sometimes walls only exist from one direction. Sometimes gravity stops working for a while. There are no laws that can be trusted in the Minus World as absolutes - every time you visit, odds are you'll find some new bizarre glitch that wasn't there before.

This is, of course, exactly what monsters use this world for. Because the laws of the world are sometimes breakable there, it's possible for monsters to occasionally pass through the barrier. From there, they just need to find an Ingress - a point of weakness in the boundary between our world and theirs. Then, the monster will emerge into the real world, inside Nistona, where it can wreak havoc.

Naturally-occurring Ingresses are rare, and appear and disappear at random - in our world, they appear like cracks in reality, big enough for a person to slip through but seldom much bigger. Using these, humans can sometimes wander into and out of the Minus World, but being there without the powers of a Guardian is extremely ill-advised. Prolonged exposure to the Minus World wears on the mind, especially the unprotected mind. These natural Ingresses are no threat, because it requires much more energy to move monsters across the boundary than it does for humans. When monsters wish to enter the human world, they'll search for a natural Ingress, and then begin channeling energy into it to 'widen' it until they can use it as a bridge to our world. This process results in disturbances in our world, causing parts of it near the Ingress to behave more like the Minus World. Strange glitches in reality are usually an indication of a monster attack in progress.

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Monsters come in four commonly-used classifications: Minions, Commanders, Corruptions, and Aberrations. Minions are the weakest and most common type of monster, but even they can be extremely dangerous - the only reason that Guardians can take on monsters with any amount of safety is because their powers are much stronger in the Minus World, where the laws of physics don't dictate what magic can or can't do as strongly. Fighting in the real world, even minions can be threats too great for a single Guardian. In the Minus World, though, a single Guardian can usually defeat one or even several Minions without backup. Their greatest weapon is their numbers.

Whenever there is an unusually high concentration of Minions, it's likely that there's a Commander present. These monsters are much more powerful than Minions, generally taking a team of Guardians working together to take down - stories of solo Guardians taking on Commanders are rare, and attempts are one of the leading causes of fatalities. In addition to being powerful on their own, Commanders can silently direct the actions of swarms of Minions, leading them to attack less like wild animals and more like invading armies. Furthermore, some of them have the ability to create more Minions to supplement their forces. One of the most common patterns of attack is for a single Commander class monster to break through the barrier, then spend days lurking and building a new army before attacking.

Corruptions are extremely rare, and extremely dangerous. When a Guardian dies in the Minus World, and their body isn't brought back to Nistona, they sometimes come back to life. However, they aren't restored as Guardians - they're restored as monsters. Corruptions are insane, cruel distortions of their former selves, backed with the strength of a monster and the magic of a Guardian. The only thing keeping them from being a greater threat than Commander class monsters is that they're less focused - they seem to attack or wander off at random, sometimes vanishing for years before reappearing again. The advice given to Guardians regarding Corruptions is to retreat and call for backup immediately, never engaging one unless you have ten or more Guardians together to fight it.

And finally, there are Aberrations. This isn't exactly a categorization, it's more of a catch-all title for monsters that don't fit into the other classes. Aberrations are one-of-a-kind occurrences, new kinds of monsters that nobody has ever seen before, and are accordingly dangerous to the extreme. When fighting an Aberration, you need to be prepared for absolutely anything. Nothing is guaranteed, not even survival.

Even within each class, monsters vary widely in nature. Each wave looks completely different from the last, with different capabilities and tactics. Sometimes, they seem to adapt to how the last invasion was repelled with new tactics and weapons designed to render the same strategy ineffective. Wherever the monsters are coming from, whatever's sending them, they seem custom-made to exterminate humanity as effectively as possible.

Historical records show a cycle of monster activity that tends to last about ten to twenty years on average. Over the cycle, monster attacks gradually become more frequent and more dangerous, until they suddenly cut out, giving way to up to a year of total silence. However, it seems that over time, the cycles are gradually getting shorter...

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The most respected institute of learning in Nistona, Pearl Academy is a sprawling campus on the edge of Kastad, near the Temple of the Pearl. Students from middle school through college can learn there, and the quality of the campus and the provided education are both excellent. Some students commute from Kastad, others opt for the comfortable and affordable on-campus housing instead.

Pearl Academy's not-so-secret secret is that among its students are nearly all active, registered Guardians. Some live openly as Guardians, others prefer to fight under assumed aliases to keep their personal lives separate from their battles. For both groups, teachers and facilities are available on campus for Guardian training, typically held after normal classes have ended for the day. Pearl Academy is a place for Guardians to live, learn, train, and prepare for the battles that await them in the Minus World.

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