The tavern's occupancy had reached that critical point at which it ceased to be a large group of individually distinguishable patrons and became a single ambient presence, filling the room with toasts, tales and all manner of talk. They happily pulled up eight chairs to the tables intended for four and jammed the aisles with boots, elbows, cloaks, and other obstacles for the servers. Mead flowed like water, of course. A few dedicated souls had rowdy poker games going in the corners. Two men on stools at the bar were having an increasingly drunken debate over which of them was eventually going to pay their tab.
But the primary attraction was a traveling minstrel named Joshua who had agreed to entertain for the night as payment for his room. Through some feat of dexterity, he kept a lively tune yet audible above the general hubbub streaming from a violin while weaving his way between tables and chairs. He was short, barely able to see over the heads of most of the seated patrons, and his green vest and brown trousers, though clearly of low quality, were carefully arranged, giving him a look of one who was poor but dignified. His carefully-combed red hair only helped that impression. A good number of feet were tapping in time with his playing.
He finished the song off to hearty applause from all quarters and took a bow.
"A tale!" someone shouted into the gap. "Give us a tale!"
Others took up the cry. "Yes, we must have a story from the bard!"
With a wide smile, Joshua bowed and tucked away his instrument. "Very well, you shall have a tale!"
This was met with hearty chairs. Other hands set a chair atop a table and Joshua settled into it, the eyes of all but the most disinterested patrons focusing on the minstrel.
"I shall tell you an ancient tale," he began, emphasizing his words with various hand gestures. "The story of the great magus Avegnor and his confrontation with the Council of Twelve!"
Relative quiet slowly descended upon the tavern as they listened with rapt attention to his words. "It is the oldest tale I know, the story of a time before the War of Ancients that ended a golden age of wizardry, and of magic…
"There were none in that day who knew not of Great Magus Avegnor, the greatest of all magi before or since. They say he was not only possessed of a great Gift for magic, but that he had long studied the ways of wizardry as well, until none could rival him…"
"It's the same thing," someone said. All eyes turned to him.
Joshua laughed quietly. "There is magic and there is wizardry, friend-they were not, nor are now, the same. Wizardry is a practiced art, an acquired skill; the domain of but a few dedicated specialists. Magic is in everything."
"But everyone knows that magi are rarer than wizards," he protested, almost pleadingly, unable to match the bard's charisma. "And magi are born with it."
"There is a Gift for magic," Joshua replied. "And those who have a great measure of it are known as magi. But even you possess a little of it. What do you do?"
He looked a little embarrassed. "I'm a woodcutter."
"There is magic in every axe fall," Joshua replied, "marking the spot on the wood, so that the next swing will find its way there." He turned to a short figure in the crowd with big, meaty hands and tousled black hair. "What do you do?"
"I'm a stonemason," he offered.
"Your magic draws lines on the earth wherever you build walls," Joshua told him. "Separating the interior and the exterior, working to keep out intruders. How about you?" he gestured towards another patron, a dark, burly man bearing scars from mild burns.
Joshua was smiling. "Your tools and wares are imbued with magic by your intent when you forge them, and the metal bends to your will, falls into the mold, holds the new shape for which you fashioned it. But Avegnor!" His eyes shone. "They say Avegnor could fashion a kingdom as you would fashion a plow. His Gift was great indeed, and all the more potent for his training in wizardry.
"Avegnor was known for his participation in the great events of that age, but he had isolated himself in a secluded tower with his books and charts, studying by candlelight and making observations of the night sky. When someone would come and ask why he sealed himself away, he would only answer 'I am seeking out the future.'
"Many of the greatest wizards in the land were jealous of Avegnor's Gift and his influence throughout the land. They called Avegnor many things for the feats he had performed in helping forge the history of that age. Kingmaker, some called him, for his help in unifying the land; Stargazer, others called him, for he named many of the constellations we can see in the sky tonight. No one really knew what Avegnor was now researching, but it was rumored everywhere that he was further building his power until his control would be absolute and none could oppose him. Some said he was learning to rewrite history, others that he was attaining such mastery of the heavens that he could move the celestial bodies with his own hand.
"The Council of Twelve, however, were particularly fearful of Avegnor's ongoing rise. These were a group of twelve of the greatest and eldest wizards of their day, who, it is said, far surpassed any alive now. In another age, any one of them would have been a legend, but none of them could rival Avegnor's control of the ether.
"As Avegnor became more and more secretive in his work, they began holding secret meetings to plot against him. Some said they should send spies to determine the aim of his work, but they knew of no wizard likely to comprehend it who could keep his presence hidden from Avegnor. Others suggested that they use their powers to sabotage his work, but once again, there were none subtle enough, for they knew not Avegnor's aim. But their most senior member, Nakkeum the Ancient, recalled a terrible piece of wizardry that could be used to expel ether from a place and weaken its link to magical forces. 'Let us lure Avegnor into our midst,' he told his conspirators, 'and with our combined power, thin the ether until it is almost entirely gone, so he will be unable to call upon his magic to defend himself. Then our servants can dispatch him physically and we will be rid of him.'
"They say that assassinations were nearly unheard of in those times, but the Council agreed. So the Twelve secretly made their plans. They gathered together at Nakkeum's stronghold, an ancient place of power, bringing with them deadly mercenaries. They then folded the ether over on itself to create a link to Avegnor's tower, and instructed one of their roguish conspirators to go through, quickly grab some of Avegnor's charts, and then return.
"The thief left, and returned a moment later carrying a random bundle of wizardous supplies. He was quickly followed by Avegnor, possessed by righteous fury at this intrusion. His eyes seemed to glow with the power at his command, and with his hands raised as if to smite his enemy, he seemed supernaturally tall as he stepped through the fold of the ether into Nakkeum's stronghold. His robes blew and snapped, as if responding to currents in the ether invisible to normal men. So terrifying was his visage that half the mercenaries fled instantly, and the rest stayed only because they were paralyzed with fear.
"But the Twelve still made their attack, and their combined wizardry shook the ether with incredible force, and Avegnor stepped through the portal only to find the currents of the ether speeding away from him in all directions. He reached, tried to grasp his magic, but there seemed nothing to grasp.
"Nakkeum felt him struggle, and suddenly possessed by base malice, started to laugh. 'The mighty Kingmaker!' he shouted, 'You are rendered powerless so easily! It is wizardry, and not magic, that holds true power. The way of planning and skill shall always succeed!'
"The mercenaries, hearing this, regained their courage, and began to advance, but Avegnor, suddenly regaining his composure, told them 'I am a wizard.'
"Avegnor had searched out the last remaining ethereal power in that place, and he threw his full force against it, many times the combined force mustered by all the Twelve. The currents of ether flying the place returned, a rushing torrent, a fierce maelstrom of magical energy. So great was Avegnor's Gift and so tremendous this magic that it struck with crushing force. The walls of Nakkeum's stronghold, bound to the ether by master stonemasons when first laid and more so by centuries of wizardry, collapsed against the ethereal torrent, their stones caught up in the great tempest and hurled throughout the place.
"The Twelve, who had exposed themselves too greatly in the thin ether, were destroyed by sheer magical force. Their mercenaries survived only moments longer, crushed by flying stones and debris. Only Avegnor, at the eye of the storm, remained unharmed."
Joshua made an unnaturally long pause, and allowed a total silence to fill the room, slowly bringing everyone to awareness that all the competing interests of the patrons had long since vanished.
"Is that the end?" someone asked, sounding somewhat perplexed.
The bard smiled. "It was the end for the Twelve. Avegnor, of course, continued his work. Never in life does everything end at one time."
"But what was his work? Did he ever complete it?"
"You have all heard of it yourselves," Joshua replied with a merry gleam in his eye. "At the completion of his studies, he made a prophecy of a magus to come."
Everyone in the room registered recognition. "The legend of the magus," someone whispered. Joshua nodded, and began to sing:
"She comes when the Serpent and Ox shine full
In the bosom of the night
She comes from the womb of the Dechunoi
And is bathed in candlelight
Her people are deeply troubled,
But though she is slight of years,
Her power o'er the ether
Will end her people's tears
"The Shadows trouble her sleep
And await her in the yard
Wizardry pursues her
And defeats her every guard
She never trains as a wizard
But with magic her only blade
She defeats the intentions of wizards
And makes Shadows do as bade
"Many a current in the ether
Has her at end or start
Many seek to use her
And her mastery of the art
But only destiny rules her
And the reason for her fame:
She shatters the power of wizards
And makes the ether tame"
"There is some dispute," he added when he was finished, "as to whether Avegnor worked some magic to bring these events about, or merely foresaw what was already in place."
"Did no one else see his work?"
"He kept it secret," Joshua replied. "Many intended to search it out in safety after his eventual death, but with the Council of Twelve gone, Avegnor was the last wizard with enough influence to maintain order, and his death ignited the War of Ancients, and his work was all lost. Regardless, there are now few children in the world who cannot point out the constellations of the Serpent and Ox in the sky, or who have not heard of the ethereal beings called Shadows."
Someone scoffed. "Surely someone must have tried to carry on his work."
The minstrel grinned. "Indeed! But that is a story for another