Death mages are the most combat-focused mages of the living family, and among the most combat-focused of all magic types of all families put together. They’re sometimes referred to as negative energy mages or necromancers (though strictly speaking necromancy is more accurately considered a branch of ritual magic).
Death and Taxes
There are two ways to understand death magic. In one interpretation, death magic is a hybrid of life and force magic, sharing some traits of both the elemental and living families. While most ‘hybrid’ mages are idiosyncratic, this particular strain is common enough to be recognised as a consistent sub-type. Under this approach, death magic is considered a hybrid because it shares some distinctive traits of life magic (the ability to sense living creatures and drain their life energy) with some of the broader abilities of the elemental family (gate magic and the ability to shield). As always, though, the problem with ‘hybrid’ interpretations is that there’s no real reason to consider life magic a more basic building block than death magic is.
Probably a better way to look at it is to understand death magic in terms of its purpose. Death magic, more than any other type, is designed exclusively for combat. All elemental mages have at least some destructive ability, but in the case of death magic it’s their focus – just about every spell a death mage can use is either offensive or defensive. The powers a death mage has access to derive less from the concept of death and more from the ability to directly deliver it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this doesn’t give death mages the best of reputations.
Death mages have a reputation for being evil, unfeeling psychopaths. It’s somewhat unfair – while their close proximity to negative energy does make death mages appear a little callous by normal standards, it doesn’t make them any more likely to resort to cruelty or violence. While it’s true that an unusually high fraction of death mages fall on the Dark side of the Dark/Light divide, this is more to do with the fact that death mages are very good at combat, and brute force will get you a lot further in the Dark hierarchy than in the Council.
It’s possible that the stories about death mages are the reason they’re classed in the living family rather than the elemental one. While death mages share some of the abilities of life mages (they can sense living creatures, although in a different way, and they possess their own modified version of a life mage’s draining touch) they can also use shields and gate magic, which are normally considered exclusive to elementalists. All in all, they probably share more with elemental mages than living ones, but the story goes that elemental mages (who outnumber both the living and universal factions) got them categorised in the living family so that their bad reputation wouldn’t rub off on elementalists. No-one’s really sure if it’s true or not, but it’s possible.
Death spells are focused around the use of negative energy, which has no effect on inanimate objects but which is deadly to living things. At full strength a blast from a death mage will kill a target, shutting down their body and stopping their heart, while scaled back to nonlethal levels the energy ‘only’ causes nausea, spasms, and crippling pain. Unusually for mages, death mages have a secondary specialisation in kinetic effects: death shields can deflect physical attacks as well as magical ones, and their attack spells can punch through armour to strike living targets on the other side.
Death mages are the quintessential battle-mages. There are types of magic that can match death magic for combat effectiveness, and there are types that can outperform it in specialised circumstances, but for general all-round combat ability death mages are right at the top tier. They aren’t unstoppable by any means but they’re very dangerous, and few mages will pick a fight with a death mage if they have any alternative.