THE ORIGINS OF MAGIC
The existence of magic has long been acknowledged, if poorly understood. In the earliest surviving Nayoran writings, depictions of the supernatural were confused and exaggerated, blended with local superstition and shamanic ritual practice. The resulting accounts were primitive and unreliable at best.
What is undisputed is this: to certain rare individuals, the raw substance of magic, the ether, is visible. And, to a still smaller number of people, it is tangible.
Centuries ago, a number of such adepts began to explore methods of enhancing their innate abilities. The experiments they conducted were unsanctioned and unregulated, often resulting in injury, insanity, death or worse. At length, though, the surviving adepts succeeded, discovering a formula of various natural substances (ingested, inhaled, or injected into the blood or under the skin) that amplified their ability to wield the ether, rather than merely perceiving or touching it.
These individuals were among the first who could properly be called mages.
Mages quickly formed loose confederations, each varying in structure and strength. It is also around this time, c. AN 500, that they were observed to bear similar physical characteristics: a gaunt, undernourished appearance, and—most consistently—a darkly stained left hand.
The significance of this stain became the object of much speculation. Was it a mark of affiliation? A side effect of touching the ether? Then, as now, the source of the stain is unknown, except perhaps to the mages and their intimates.
Most of these early cabals were little more than ragtag collections of novices, with a reputation for debauchery and erratic, often violent, behavior. In the villages where they congregated, sinister rumors spread. Discontent festered. Some cabals flourished for a period of weeks or months before disbanding, fading into obscurity. Others suffered the wrath of the lowborn and were forcibly exiled or killed outright.
Those mages who assembled in cities often ran afoul of the local magistrates, and it was in this period that hanging became the standard method of punishment for magic-related violations of the law. All in all, these early cabals did much to further the perception of mages as an untrustworthy, dangerous collection of degenerates. This dark reputation would adhere to magic, and those who studied it, ever after.
But one such group, the Etherine Order, would transcend these questionable associations, rising to prominence as the most consequential cabal of mages in the history of the Nayoran Peninsula. With the exception of the noble Houses themselves, the Etherine represent the most significant collection of individuals in all of Nayoran history.
THE EARLY ETHERINE
Little is known of the origins of the Etherine Order, save that an inner circle of nine Founders recruited members from throughout the Peninsula from c. AN 712 onwards. The earliest recorded use of the name "Etherine Order" dates to AN 746, in a personal correspondence between one Pirin'Adeel and a farmer named Briam, from the region now known as Teth.
From c. AN 761 – AN 957 the Etherine Order developed the study and practice of magic to hitherto unimagined heights. Alone amongst mages, the Etherine Order seemed immune to the detrimental physical effects of magical practice. They behaved with a discipline and restraint that had been lacking in their predecessors. Also notable is that few Etherine mages of the time bore the telltale stained hand that had become synonymous with magecraft.
As the Etherine worked ever-greater wonders, they reached out to lowborn and nobles alike in a campaign of goodwill that, if calculated, reached the desired goal. In time they gained audiences with the noble Houses, and worked closely with them to initiate an period of peace and abundance. Etherine mages were recognized as benefactors of the realm. They asked little in return save to be left to their pursuits, and to be allowed to share the results of those pursuits as they saw fit.
Above all, the early Etherine Order pursued knowledge. Despite the stupendous physical effects they could manifest, they considered themselves first and foremost an intellectual organization. A gathering of philosophers, rather than a tradesman's guild. Etherine mages consulted with, and shared their expertise with, the most learned men and women of the age.
Engineering was a field in which this collaboration bore particular fruit, as evidenced by achievements such as the Queensbridges, the Time Tower at Gilmaran, the Chained Isles, the Great Gate of Ceresia, and others (many of which have subsequently been destroyed or are otherwise lost to history). The scope of these marvels ushered in, not just a new power in the Peninsula, but a new Age.
THE AGE OF HIGH SORCERY
As the Age of High Sorcery dawned, the collected studies of the Etherine Order were codified, stored away in secret libraries and rationed out from master to apprentice (a process which could take decades). This was a system purpose-built by the Founders to advance the Art, while at the same time preventing a new generation of mages from using magic to their own ends without sufficient respect for the consequences of abuse.
Likewise, the Etherine organized themselves as a rigid, multi-tiered hierarchy, in which the nine Founders of the Order held authority over all mages who allied themselves with the group. Every aspect of the lives—and, more importantly, the research—of the Etherine was controlled from above. The specifics of mage politics during the Age of High Sorcery are, of course, unknown (unless, perhaps, they are chronicled in some volume of Etherine-held lore).
To the outside world the Etherine Order presented an anonymous, yet benevolent, face. Every season brought some new wonder to the realm. The obloquy of the lowborn began to subside (though it did not disappear entirely). The Etherine, alone among mages, held a great and growing power. They used it judiciously, for the benefit of all.
If the nobility had begun to view that superior power as a threat, they voiced such opinions only in the privacy of their halls. Outwardly they showered the Etherine with praise, and funded their ongoing endeavors with gold Kingsheads.
With the ascendancy of the Etherine, and the luxurious patronage of the nobles, came a new flowering of rival claimants to the Art. Mages who claimed allegiance to smaller cabals, or the rare "non-aligned mage," were treated with varying degrees of tolerance, depending on the political power of the Etherine at the moment… so long as those mages stayed far away from noble intrigue. Non-Etherine mages who curried favor with the nobles typically faced one of two fates: integration into the Order, or disappearance. Such was the Etherine manner of strengthening their emerging position as a political force.
By the last decades of the Age, the Etherine had become the de facto trade guild for magic—precisely the characterization they had long scorned. Always the Etherine strove to position themselves as the sole legitimate purveyors of magic across the Peninsula (a monopoly over the ether, in much the same way the Rivermen held a monopoly over the inland waterways).
For the most part, they were successful. The heights to which they had developed the Art, combined with shrewd political alliances and well-placed spies, ensured their preeminence. and they were able to assuage the growing wariness of the nobles through their continued services. Poor indeed was the lordling who lacked an Etherine advisor… always assigned by their Etherine superiors, of course, and ultimately answerable to the Nine Founders.
(The term "Nine Founders" was traditionally used by the Etherine to refer to their highest circle of authority. Whether the Founders were the same individuals throughout the Age of High Sorcery—a period of nearly 200 years—is unknown. Tales exist of the Etherine developing a means of extending their lifespan, as do other explanations of extreme longevity amongst the mages, but this may as easily be attributed to the general mystique surrounding the Order).
Whoever they were at this point, the Founders had good reason to insist on such rigid internal control. Rivalries within the Etherine were a growing source of tension as the 10th Century AN began. Professional disputes and simmering hostilities were inevitable, perhaps, with power of the magnitude that was wielded at the height of the Age. Inevitable, too, was a growing entanglement in noble politics. From time to time these internecine conflicts expanded beyond the walls of the Etherine strongholds. In at least one such case, Etherine mages came into contention with the Elden Nayoran throne itself.
THE WINTER REBELLION
The Winter Rebellion (AN 872) began in the midst of the Age of High Sorcery. A cabal of renegade Etherine mages supplanted the reigning monarch, seizing power at The Stone and declaring itself sovereign. Paladine and infantry were assembled from throughout the realm to oppose the coup; Ceres Nayor alone mustered thousands of soldiers to march north against the usurpers. Non-aligned mages joined in the fight, as well, allying themselves with various groups of Paladine. House Niemarsh alone fielded half a dozen such mages.
What transpired next is a matter of legend, and of controversy. Casualties among the armies were initially heavy; the power of even a rogue cabal of Etherine proved more than a match for their enemies. The unaligned mages, likewise, proved ineffectual against their Etherine rivals. But three weeks into the Winter Rebellion, the rogue mages simply departed… engaging in no further combat and escaping The Stone without ever being seen. The king, Delwyn I Rotswald, resumed his reign as if the Winter Rebellion had never occurred.
The Book of Years, the official royal chronology of Elden Nayor, states that the conquering Etherine
"…quit the field, honor stained blacker than the hand of the basest mage. They were cowed, not by the sight of the slain, but by the living who still came on. Those puissant, desperate heroes, arrayed against the Etherine past all hope of survival, served as the embodiment of the will of the people: none would suffer a mage to rule."
This rather florid depiction ignores the fact that the rogue Etherine, up until the moment of their disappearance, were winning the struggle, and winning easily. It is likely that the true reason the Winter Rebels suffered such an abrupt, definitive reversal of fortune will never be known.
Order was restored, and the Etherine were made to atone for the defiance of their rebel faction (by building the first Queensbridge, at Nayor's Stone, completed in AN 879). But the Winter Rebellion exposed a rift within the Etherine. It was one of many such rifts, it is speculated, that would rise over the succeeding decades to consume the organization from within.
After the Winter Rebellion, the noble Houses began to view the Etherine with suspicion. Behind the renewed public declarations of solidarity between mages and nobles, plots were set in motion to splinter the Etherine Order, to impinge upon their freedoms and generally to bring them to heel. Relations between the two centers of power deteriorated over the following decades.
The last great gift of the Etherine to the realm, the Queensbridge at Nottsbridge (completed AN 899), is considered a turning point in relations between nobles and mages. Shortly after construction was finished, the Etherine recalled their emissaries to the Elden Nayoran court. In retaliation, the throne ceased its funding of the Etherine Order.
What followed was a half-century of decline. Etherine mages remained active throughout the Peninsula, and remained as capable as ever. But without any official liaison to the throne, those mages were utilized (or, in some cases, exploited) by individual nobles for their own purposes. Disputes between the Houses sharpened. The situation was worsened by the coronation of Delwyn II Rotswald, by all accounts a weak and feckless king. By the middle of the 10th Century AN, conditions were ripe for upheaval. And history did not disappoint.
THE FALL OF THE ETHERINE
What transpired in the year AN 956 goes by many names: the Madness, the Great Betrayal, the Time of Troubles. Whatever the title, it was by any reckoning the most turbulent year in the history of the Peninsula.
Without provocation or apparent motive, Etherine mages embarked on a brief but comprehensive campaign of destruction that ravaged the entire Peninsula. The catastrophe ended only when the Etherine, apparently consumed with rage, or bent on revenge, or driven to some other form of madness, died out completely. Within a month's time they had disappeared from the face of the Peninsula, leaving in their wake a land devastated by an unprecedented magical onslaught. Entire villages were razed; buildings destroyed, families murdered seemingly at random. The senselessness of the acts served only to increase the terror felt by lowborn and noble alike.
By the end of 956, the king was dead, killed by an unknown Etherine mage, and Duke Larkin Albareen ascended the throne. Thus began the Albareen line of monarchs, which continues to this day.
As his first official act as king, Larkin Albareen issued a decree outlawing the practice of magic throughout Elden Nayor. The ban was enacted in similar fashion throughout the other realms of the Peninsula within months. The Etherine, and mages in general, were no more.
MAGES IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY
To wield magic in the time of the Albareen is a death sentence. Mages are reviled throughout the Nayoran Peninsula. The people hang them whenever they find them, in the old manner, with or without trial.
Yet rumors persist. Stories of mages abound, and it is certain that at least a few of those unfortunates who meet their end upon a gibbet are, in truth, mages… or what passes for mages after the Fall of the Etherine.
The most common rumor, of course, is that the Etherine did not completely destroy themselves—that a small contingent survived. Employed in secret by the noble Houses, perhaps, or the trade guilds, and always attempting to recover some semblance of their former knowledge and prestige.
What remnants of the Etherine Order exist in the Peninsula? What part of their old strength do they possess? Where have they hidden themselves, and what are their plans? These are among the great mysteries of the day. For none has come forward in public, since the last days of the Age of High Sorcery, to declare himself as a wielder of magic.