Previously on Aetherius Saga…
Jon the Compassionate, Sage of Water, joins his brother Slash the Ephemeral and two of his fellow Eternals in aiding a rival Guild. Together they prevent the death of Storm the Red, leader of the Red Mails. That night the group celebrates and Storm “graces” Jon with his company until his debt is repaid. Now the pair continues their journey…
To the south of the Kingdom of Nanow connected to the Etrenian River was Gadra Harbor. It was a small port used almost exclusively for reaching the Colsana Archipelago or an extended voyage to the Everfrost Isles. It’d take one week to get from Gadra to Sego, the central village of the archipelago. So far, three of those seven days have passed and Storm grows restless. Facing across the deck of the boat as Jon sat resting against the banister with Tella sleeping on his lap.
“I’ve been thinking.” Storm asks Jon not stopping his pacing for a second.
“About?” Jon replies half awake.
“Our glorious mission. I didn’t want to ask but I can’t hold back.” Storm drops to his knees and leans towards Jon. “What are we going to do? Is there trouble to smite? Are those Myurkyurians attacking again? Who shall taste my blade?!”
“Nobody, I’m just doing something I should’ve done a long time ago.” Jon replies casually.
“What could a Sage have possibly forgotten to do?”
“I’ve never gotten a Neithan Mark.”
“You’re a Mage?” His question sparking a sigh from Jon. “But you’re…”
“Not all Mages have dark skin you know.” Mages were a race gifted with a strong connection to the Aether much like the Chorsingh. As natives of the Colsana Archipelago, they are known for their tan skin that was only a few shades lighter than that of the Nomads. However, it wasn’t unheard of for Mages to have fair skin like Jon’s. As such, most go by eye color and clothing rather than skin tone for identification. Although Jon admittedly wore Highlander clothing which meant relying entirely on his eye color to know he was, in fact, a Mage…
“Ha, I knew that. I was just making sure Tella knew.” He says confidently as Jon stares at him silently. “But if our first mission is to get you a Neithan Mark then I’ll speak to the captain and get him to move this ship faster!” Storm stands and rushes off having needlessly shouted his declaration.
“Hey wait! We don’t have to rush!” Jon quickly springs to his feet to try and catch up to Storm.
A Neithan Mark was a special type of tattoo given to Mages when they come of age. Created through an ancient spell passed down by the elders, the mark is branded on their body. The Aether burning into their flesh and becoming one with them. It telling the story of their family and growing as they aged to tell the tale of their own life. It’s because of this that it’s done when they come of age so it can grow with them through life. It’s frowned upon to choose not to get one when first offered and an insult to your family to choose to never get one at all.
After 4 days of anticipation, the ship finally comes in eyesight of the Colsana Archipelago. The purity of the Aether was unmatched and it made the smell of the sea intoxicating. Much of Jon’s anxiety left just being in proximity. To the right on the horizon sat the massive Xant Mountains. It was home to the descendants of Dragons including the Wyvern, Voltrite, and Dracokin. It stood as one of the only places outside of Elysium protected by an Aetherial Barrier. To this day none know who originally put it in place, yet all know only the toughest and most skilled can breach it. Then only the truly elite will survive after that. But despite the threat of increasingly horrific deaths, the Xant Mountains was a sight to behold. Its massive peaks hid many wonders yet to be properly explored. Several miles from there lay the central island of the archipelago and home to the village of Sego.
“What do you say Tella?” Jon asks Tella while gazing longingly at the sea. She happily mews in response. “I knew you’d want to too.”
“Want to what?” Storm blurts in.
Jon pauses briefly, glances at Tella whose ears lower before she walks off, and responds. “Can you swim Storm?
“Of course, I was the best swimmer in all of the Redmails. With and without armor on. Even Merfolk are no match for me!”
“You’ll have to show me sometime.” Jon smiles, still focused on the sea.
A few minutes pass when the ship stops off the coast and begins unloading passengers via small rafts. There were no standard docks so transports and merchants would use small ships that used a mix of oars and magic to move quickly across the water. What’d normally take 30 minutes now only took 10. Reaching the shore; Jon, Tella, and Storm depart. The sun shining brightly through the palm trees and warming the white sand. The air filled with a sweet mix of sea salt and the sound of pan flutes as the wind blew. The walk to Sego was pleasant and a unique sight neither had seen before. Crossing through the sea of palm trees and tall grass, for once even Storm was an uncharacteristic quiet.
Sego was one of the two main towns in the Colsana Archipelago and they lived with no fear of monsters. With no naturally hostile monsters and most natives capable of magic, there was little to threaten the town. The buildings were made of wood with straw roofs. Compared to Poluyim, the buildings were far more spread out rather than close together like a cluttered city. The Aether was visible in the air and the town was teeming with life. The Mages wore dresses and skirts made from light vibrant cloths or Undine Seaweed found exclusively in the region deep beneath the waves. It absorbed the dense Aether and when dried could be made into lightweight clothing that worked surprisingly well to protect against the elements. The Mages tan skin providing natural protection against the weather. Both men and women possessing a number of tattoos in varying regions of their bodies. But all shared the same blue eyes. They lived with the Sea Faun, who were just Faun that lived in the Colsana Archipelago. They provided a near-constant ambient music for the inhabitants and visitors.
“You can do this Jon.” he thinks to himself as he looks around the village.
“As knowledgeable as I am about the world, I’m not sure where you’d get a Neithan Mark.” Storm laments unable to aid Jon.
“Same, I was just gonna ask around for the elder.” Jon notes before the trio walk through the town. He felt uneasy just being in Sego, the eyes staring at him didn’t help the feeling. Even if the Mages didn’t know who he was they could sense his Aether. “Excuse me.” Jon asks a fisherman preparing to head out. “Do you know where I could find the Elder?”
“Sure brother, she’s in the tall building to the east.”
“Thanks.” With a smile and a wave he heads off following the direction. Brother was a term commonly used by male Mages to address each other. It was a sign of closeness and familiarity that he didn’t expect but appreciated immensely.
“How have you never been here before?” Storm asks confused. “Not that I’m questioning your almighty wisdom. I’m sure there’s a reason you haven’t.”
“What can I say, hard to wander somewhere when you need a boat.”
“But you’re the Sage of Wat-”
“-Hey! I think I see it up ahead.” Jon picks up his pace and reaches the Elders home. A tall building reminiscent of a church. It seemed oddly out of place amidst the numerous small house and shacks. With a soft knock on the door, an equally soft voice beckons them to enter. The Elder was an aged woman with only her face and hands not covered in a tattoo. Long gray hair extended to her lower back as she sat on the matted floor.
“Hello my child, what can I do for you today?” she asks softly.
“I didn’t know you had family here. First a brother and now a…grandmother?” Storm says louder than he intended.
“My names Jon and this is Storm the Red.” Ignoring Storms comment entirely. “Oh, and she’s Tella.” he motions to Tella who hops onto his shoulder. “I was hoping you’d be able to give me a Neithan Mark.”
“You’re a Mage are you not? Why did you not get one before now?”
“I didn’t really have a chance before now.”
“Do you know what the process entails?”
“If I do it it’ll chronicle all the years of your life en masse. Are you sure you’re ready to bear the pain?”
“I am.” Jon says filled with determination.
“Okay, come closer and remove your tunic.”
“Storm, would you mind waiting for me outside?” Jon asks sitting down next to the Elder.
“Why yes I do. I’m here to guard you with my life and help in any way I can. If I leave how will I be able to do that?” Storm proudly and defiantly declares as he sits down hard. The armor protecting his legs only serving to hurt him. “I totally meant to do that.” Storm smiles through the pain.
“Is something wrong?” She asks putting her hand on Jons. It wasn’t hard for her to see the hesitation and uneasiness affecting him.
“It’s nothing.” Jon looks away from her gaze before removing his tunic. His chest and back covered in scars. Some that healed and some as clear as day primarily focused on his lower back. Storm gasps in shock while the Elders’ heart sinks at the sight. “I just lay down right?” Receiving a nod he lays down on his chest.
“I know I’ve asked this before, but are you sure you’re ready for this?”
Jon nods before the Elder begins the ritual. Her hands glows with Aether while she recites an ancient spell. She slowly moves her hand over Jons right shoulder and with each word of her incantation her Neithan Mark is set. The Aether burning into his skin and taking form. Throughout the process it caused an extreme level of pain most would faint from. But to Jon, it was nothing special. The spell surging memories to the surface and becoming physically etched in him.
When Jon was a child, he was sold to Cider Village by his parents. He had no memories of them and the most he remembers is being raised a farm boy. Being raised by the entire village, his main companions were the animals. They had a natural fondness for him and whenever he had free time he spent it drawing them. He was a natural artist and most people felt he was wasted as a farmhand. For 10 years his days were dull but pleasant. Helping the dogs round up the cattle, riding the Urba for fun, drawing the wildlife, and just sleeping. Today, Jon snuck off to Neith’s Cove once more to draw it. He always drew living things but for once he wanted to challenge himself with a landscape.
“Something’s missing…” Jon thinks to himself as he looks over his landscape. He drew everything there but he couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong. That something was off. “Hm…aghhh! FRUSTRATING!” Flipping the page over, Jon draws again. In a matter of minutes, another perfect landscape is drawn. “…Nope…” Flipping the page once more, he starts again. For a third time, the landscape is perfect. “This looks way better!” he looks over his landscape and compares them to see what went wrong. “Huh…that wasn’t there before.” Looking back and forth at the pictures he realizes there was a fleet in each picture gradually approaching. In his focus, he failed to realize their approach and docking on the shores of Cider Village. “Never saw ships like that before…” Jon was used to seeing ships, merchant or otherwise, docking off-shore. He wondered what made them want to land so close to the village.
Reflexively, Jon changes the page and begins to draw the emblem adorning the sail. The insignia appeared to be that of a broadsword with a sun as its cross-guard. But never had he seen that insignia before or a ship so large and heavily armored. Hoping Chief Gram would have answers, he returned home. But something was wrong. Even as a farm town it was oddly quiet. A crowd had gathered near the front of the village. Staying on the outside of the crowd he can just barely make out the cause of the gathering. A caravan of soldiers clad in crimson and golden-hued armor all bearing the same insignia as the boats had come to the village.
“Welcome to Cider Village. How may we serve you today?” Chief Gram asks politely. He was a rotund man and always thought about what was best for the village and its people. A fitting trait for a former Guildmaster.
“I am Sir Fredrick of the Kingdom of Orion. On behalf of King Xavier, I’ve come with the royal decree.” his armor was the most elegant of the group. Not only did it shine the brightest but it had a decorated shoulder cape covering the left arm and his short sword. His curly auburn hair covered fair skin and a grievous scar on the right side of his face. “There will be no more trade between our people from this day forward. From now on there will be an increased mandatory tribute to all towns under his domain.” he knows they’ll want to protect themselves and hopes they would. He enjoyed taking tributes by force. As a Knight of Orion, he was one of the Kings most trusted warriors.
“But Sir Fredrick, we already are already offering as much tribute as we can!”
“Clearly it’s not enough. Your King demands more and he will have it. Do you want your kingdom to lose to those fanatics of Celestia or those Myurkyurian heathens?” Chief Gram is unable to respond to his question. “Your King will require the following on top of your existing tribute. Two dozen horses for the troops, one dozen chickens, eight Urvine, and a season’s worth of food for my men and for all the livestock.”
“W-we can’t make such a tribute! We wouldn’t survive the winter ourselves and we’d go under. Please Sir Fredrick, we need time to-”
“Are you refusing to provide for your King? Is his protection from invasion not good enough for you?” he interrupts Grams plea.
“No, all I am asking for is time.”
“The King believed some of you farmers would try to weasel your way out of helping the war effort. He left us specific orders for just such an occasion.” Sir Fredrick clears his throat. “Should the village be unable or unwilling to part with the required supplies then they will instead have to part with the able-bodied.” A smug smirk coming across his lips. “Which will you choose? Part with your supplies or your people?” Chief Gram averts his gaze and Sir Fredrick already knows what choice has been made. “A wise decision.” With a wave of his hand, his men begin rounding up all the men, women, and children of the village. Lining them up by gender and age. One by one he goes down the line examining them. “I see you raise the boys to grow fine and strong. They’ll make capable soldiers. And such fine women. Some of you will be caring for the young, maintaining our gear, and the livestock as well. The rest join the harem. You’ll have the honor of bearing the next generation of King Xavier’s army. Last but not least the children…Not many of you runts are there? So scrawny…but you have good discipline which could be useful. We won’t have to break you to teach you.” Sir Fredrick becomes silent when he reaches Jon and sees his eyes. “What’s your name boy?”
“Uh…um…” he stammers.
“Jon, his name is Jon.” Chief Gram says coming to his aid only to receive a death glare.
“I asked the boy, not you. Do well to remember that.” Sir Fredrick turns his attention back to Jon once more. “Let’s try this again, what is your name boy?”
“Jon sir.” he replies.
“Were you born in this village Jon?”
Jon glances at Chief Gram who remains silent and averts his gaze. “No…no I wasn’t…”
“Is that so…At least you look healthier than the others. But those glasses will be an issue. Were you not a Mage I’d have no use for you. But if you fail me in that regard then we’ll have alternative uses for you.” Turning his back he gives one final order without even looking. “You know who to take men. Have the Mage brought to my personal horse and prepare to set sail.” He was used to the cries of parents and lovers being taken from each other. But the sound no longer had the same luster it once did.
“Please! Sir Fredrick reconsider!” Chief Gram cries out. His voice straining from the effort.
“You know the price for hiding a Mage from the census let alone all your questions Gram. Did we not need Cider Village I’d have it burned to the ground, have you forced to watch as every member of your family is skinned in front of you, and searched for the boy’s parents to see if they were hiding too. You made the right decision saving the supplies over the people. Do not push your luck.”
Friend and foe alike were at the mercy of Orion Army. The top brass who served King Xavier was in a competition of sorts to see who could procure the best prize to aid the war effort. Big or small, everyone was required to give something. Sir Fredricks rivals thought he was insane for choosing to target Cider Village. But returning with a young and impressionable Mage would be a boost that put him above them all. The others he conscripted became a side bonus. Three days north of Neith’s Cove in the Uncharted Territory sat the Isle of Caldra. It was a special island found and guarded by the Kingdom of Orion’s Fleet. Their latest cargo would get examined and then their fates officially decided…