In disbelief of what had happened, the screaming Aelen heard gave way to a grand silence. The magic was still there, but it was less. Those around him at the Ephemeris College felt the disturbance, too, but nobody either knew or seemed to not want to say. For days, Aelen would go to the library and sit with his, now-unremarkable spellbook. No whispers. No insights. Just the wind against the glass and the opening and closing of the library doors. Eventually, Aelen woke up in acquiescence. Just as in his home College, whatever innate magic was there was not going to help him excel. It was the failure that led him to the grimoire, he thought, it would be this failure that would propel him further.
On a walk of the grounds, planning his next move, he saw a Battlemage who wore a tabard of the Eston Knights exiting the central tower. The human was gaunt and weathered, his tanned skin pockmarked and adorned with scars. His hair was shaved to the skin, completing the practical adornments of a soldier. Aelen had never seen the Battlemages at the College look so haggard or serious. The man also had a constant look of purpose, like someone who stared in the face of their own death. The pageantry of the College must fade when accustomed to such darkness.
Aelen approached and hailed the mage, his stare broke and he scanned Aelen tentatively. Aelen, not wanting to overplay his hand, introduced himself cordially and feigned ignorance in asking if the man was from Eston. He nodded and curtly affirmed. Aelen bluffed and mentioned a fellow had told him Eston had a great many arcane libraries. In particular, he wanted to get his hands on a tome about planar portals.
The man’s disinterested look sharpened and cut the silence that hung in the air. After a beat, his look softened and he cleared his throat. “Try Tao. Eston’s a place of functional magic. Plus, the way is fraught with war. Be wary, no Barbarians will cleave you, but plenty will jump to cut your throat for your coinpurse in that wretched bog.” Aelen thanked him and excused himself. Confirmed by the reaction, he immediately fetched the College cartographer to get a map of the way to Tao.
About a week later, as Aelen’s approach neared Tao, he had a vantage over the city’s walls, which were, at one point, complete like its government, but now filled with holes and patched with wood, mud, and debris. Aelen had grabbed a book from the library about the town. Each night he studied it intently:
Tao was originally a kingdom whose bloodline died out. When conflicts rose to determine the successor, a group of merchants who owned many of the docks banded together to create their own government. Initially pitched as the “Marketplace Solution” to the lack of royal edict, power was traded for gold and sealed with blood. Indeed, many groups laid siege to the walls, some of the merchant lords were poisoned, shot, and stabbed but without the ability to restrict the naval trade, the town subsisted. As the surviving merchants became more paranoid and controlling, their margins, shrinking with every siege, the city of capital they envisioned quickly became autocratic. Ruling was equal parts iron and gold. Eventually, the competitors docks were burned, unfortunate fires seemed to plague all who tried to deviate from the controlling houses. Eventually, through marriage and integration, the houses melded into one: The House of Tao.
Ever since then, Tao had maintained a sort of tepid peace. The merchant lords had their enforcers ensure that commerce was not impeded, and indeed they offered what the other cities did not, a free marketplace. Free, of course, being in terms of restrictions, not the cut the merchants paid for the privilege.
As Aelen entered the town, a man who, presumably was a guard, wearing armor emblazoned with the same coat of arms as the gates, hassled the mage.
“Oi! You there, goldy. What business have you in our fair city?”
Aelen bristled at the slur, his hands clenched. He muttered an elven curse under his tongue.
“My business is my own, knave.” the elf shot back.
“Well any business is Tao is my business, you understand? If you want to keep that business and your head, to yourself, you better start speaking or start walking.”
“I am looking to find a trader of arcane tomes. Planar…things. It’s probably above your understanding.”
The man paused, confused looking, then his face snapped into a smile.
“Oi, well why didn’t you just say so!? ‘Course, Tao has the finest arcane tradeshops. We love us mages and elfkin! In fact, on behalf of House Tao, I’ll save you time by telling you the best one in the whole city. Good friend of mine by the name of Dorund. Always collecting trinkets, that Dorund.”
He gave Aelen the directions and patted him on the back as the elf proceeded by. “Oi be careful goldy, just cuz us guards are here, doesn’t mean you still can’t get a dagger slipped in your slender ribs.”
As Aelen followed the directions through crowded markets. Living up to its namesake, even in the open air, everything was for sale in Tao. Exotic creatures in cages were next to slave stalls with humanoids of all sizes. Outside bars and drug dens, smoke pouring out every crack and window, barely clad women dance and heckle passer-by’s. Aelen arrived at the alley the gaurd had described. Walking down the alley, Aelen squinted to translate the poorly handwritten signs. An elf’s stone throw ahead, he heard a door bang against its frame. A halfling sprung out from the portal, two men in leather armor, swords out, in tow. One wore an eyepatch and a bandana. The other was bald, with a necklace of bones draped about his head.
“HELP!” He screamed as he dashed around Aelen.
The men slowed as Aelen stayed within the walkway, eyeing them.
“Yer in our way, Elven trash.” the bandana’d cyclops barked. They both held their swords out to the ready.
Aelen’s brow furrowed, “I think it is you who is in my way, Iantha.”
“We dont’ have time for this, Durgo, let’s gut this one and find that runt.” the other said, lunging at Aelen and although Aelen dodged his strike, he had thrown his body weight at the elf, and they came crashing to the ground.
Hitting the muddy stones, the elf struggled against the weight of the bandit, as he grappled on, having the upperhand. The bone-necklace bandit ended up kneeling upon the elf’s chest and hoisted his sword in the air, a dramatic finish for the mage. Aelen clenched his eyes, his every muscle taut at the impending impact.
A voice called out “Stop right there, brigand! Drop that sword.” Aelen’s eyes snapped open, acutely aware of the magic that coursed around him as the bandit, wide-eyed, dropped his sword. As it clattered to the cobblestones, the man’s expression turned from confusion to wide-eyed fear and stood up. Aelen flipped onto his stomach in time to see a hulking barbarian sprinting down the alley and grab the man into the air. The man kicked at the barbarian’s chest to no avail, the giant threw him against a wall. His body fell limp to the stones.
The one-eyed bandit, took a step back.
“Th—this doesn’t concern you, mountain man. Back off.”
The barbarian stood, planted and moved one hand to the large sword hanging across his back.
“I’m warning you! I know people! People that’ll gu-”
He was cutshort as he was lifted off the ground and thrown back a good 5 feet onto his back. The air rippled beyond where it had carried the man. Gasping from the air being knocked out of him, the bandit scrambled to his feet. The barbarian turned around to see the elf’s eyes lightly glowing, his hand pointing out at where the air had burst out.
“You…” the man coughed and inhaled sharply “You’ll pay for this!” as he turned and ran, leaving his friend behind, crumpled amongst the refuse that lined the alley.
Behind Aelen, a man in armor sauntered up. Aelen scanned him, fixating quickly on the book tethered to his hip, bound in chains. They locked eyes. The serious look of the man melted into soft worry.
“Are you alright, brother?” Rustiver asked as he smiled, his hand rising to offer a handshake.
“I was fine. I did not need your help.” The elf quipped, his pride surfacing.
“You were about 5 seconds from being fine.” The Barbarian quipped, relaxing as he watched for movement from the unconcious brigand.
“My name is Rustiver, this is Jerold. We heard the halfling’s call for helps and thought we should check it out. Are you a mage? What is your name?”
“Aelen. I should ask you the same thing, making him drop his sword like that. Do not try any mind tricks on me, you’ll find your feeble race can’t manipulate the minds of my kin.”
Rustiver and Jerold both chuckled at the dig.
“Nonsense, brother. I am…a priest of the battlefield, I can command men to fight or to peace. I am no mindflayer. You didn’t answer my question.”
Jerold muttered under his breath “You should be more concerned with bodyflayers…”
Aelen shot daggers at the large man, who received it with a smirk. He turned back to Rustiver “I am a mage. I am a visiting scholar at the Mage’s College of Ephemeris. I’ve come to this wretched place in search of arcanic tomes.”
Rustiver laughed, “Arcanic tomes? In Tao!? Where did you get that idea? This is a den of slavers, traders, and profiteers. Perhaps such a place exists, but I can’t imagine who would suggest such a thing.”
Aelen’s face drooped upon hearing this, before resuming a skeptic stoic facade.
Rustiver continued, patting the hyvalim on the shoulder. “Y’know, we’re heading South, these bandits may have short attention spans, but their grudges run long. We could use a mage with your talents to come with us. My cohort and I have already helped each other out of a few incidences with brigands.”
Aelen paused and stared at the man. His eyes twitched as though carrying on a conversation inside his mind. He perceived sincerity and in his ear, he swore he heard the quietest of whispers, sending his heart a flutter.
“Alright, but only because I owe you two. I am not some commonoid, I repay my debts.” He huffed.
Rustiver and Jerold glanced at each other, smirking and nodding affirmatively.