The Circle of Arcane Enlightenment
This article is dedicated to the memory of Matt "Gloern" Gatto, who gave invaluable input to it. We miss you, Matt.
The pursuit of rare knowledge, particularly of the arcane variety, invokes an interesting dichotomy of behaviors. On the one hand, scholars of such subjects must toil through hours upon hours of tedious research and experimentation to unlock even the simplest of magical secrets; therefore, it serves them greatly to share their individual discoveries with one another, so that all may benefit. However, the high physical, mental, and often financial, costs of attaining such knowledge are so high that its practitioners tend to be jealous of each precious bit that they possess.
To be gifted with the ability to feel and manipulate the arcane arts is both a blessing and a curse. For with the power to hurl a fireball or point a finger at someone and kill them with a word, comes the suspicions and utter fear of the common people (or the "mundanes" as mages are wont to call them). Fear can breed the worst forms of paranoia and delusions so that as soon as a cow dies, or a fire starts in town, people are seeking the mage who is "obviously" responsible. Magic users may be wielders of awesome power, but they do have to sleep sometimes - and surrounding oneself with paid warriors becomes taxing to one's treasury. Seclusion is one answer to this problem (which is why spellcasters tend to favor low-population areas), but complete isolation can also limit opportunities for research.
Centuries ago, during the reign of the lost Anataharian Empire, there came a period of time when those who opposed the use of magic gained the upper hand politically. During that time, the mages of Antaron came under systematic persecution, and many were put to death for imaginary crimes. As a result, their numbers dwindled drastically and there was a good chance that all arcane knowledge would be lost. Faced with such a universal threat, the mages began to put their distrust of one another aside in order to simply survive.
Thus, the Circle of Arcane Enlightenment was born. Originally, all mages were welcomed as they faced a common foe, and the group was very closely knit. Magical knowledge was shared as never before, and the few wizards who did survive managed to grow quite powerful.
Over time, the anti-magic movement lost momentum, and the mage population began to rebound. Due to this trend, the members of the Circle started to become more selective regarding their peers, accepting only those that they felt could offer something to the fellowship. Originally, this was done either through recommendations from existing members, or through a vote of leadership, but after a time, it was decided that these restrictions were not enough to Circle from becoming a mere social club for anyone with a trick up the sleeve and a matching robe.
The first Council of the Learned - heads of each of the Circle's member orders - met sometime around 1340 b.E.R. and discussed many possible solutions. In the end, they settled upon a unique method for selecting new members - a special test to measure arcane aptitude and skill, as well as overall worthiness of the applicant. These archmages spent a great deal of energy and effort in the creation of this process, but it has withstood the test of time, and is still used to select new members.
To even be allowed to take the Test, an applicant generally must first be invited. The only exceptions to this policy are for apprentices of existing Circle members whose masters vouch for them, or for graduates of the Academy of Magic in Felarin, Ertain. Furthermore, a representative from each of the eight orders must be on hand to administer the Test; this ensures that all aspects of the trials are sufficiently balanced.
Each of the Circle mages contributes something, but the magic itself dictates the largest portion of the Test, drawing influences from the very mind of the applicant. The Test is different for every single person, but one thing is common to all - it is extremely dangerous. Failure does not simply indicate that the individual is unworthy to join the Circle; the penalties are far more severe, including the possibility of crippling physical harm, loss of sanity, loss of life, and the loss of ability to wield arcane magic. Few take the Test, and fewer still pass it.
It is worth noting that only those dedicated solely to the pursuit of magic are allowed to take the Test - dabblers and part-time mages are strictly forbidden. Likewise, Circle members are expected to continue to dedicate their entire lives to magic. This is not to say that personal lives, hobbies, and the like are not allowed to exist; however, those who turn from the path of magic are permanently banished from the ranks of the Circle without exception. Consequently, there are no warrior mages or magician thieves in the ranks of the Circle.
While virtually every city of any size across Antaron hosts some presence of the Circle, four cities in particular serve as epicenters of the organization's activity: Drefast in Drannon (the oldest such location, dating back to Anatahari days), Felarin in Ertain, Semon in Coria, and Istalindir in the Sylvarian kingdom of Alloryen. Even if an individual has been invited to take the Test, they must still journey to one of these four citadels in order to do so.
The Circle itself is divided into eight individual Orders, each with their own viewpoints, areas of magical focus, and agendas. In theory, each Order is equal, though in practice, several exert more influence than do others. Individual orders are responsible for governing themselves, and are expected to handle matters of leadership succession and the like without outside interference. At the local chapter level, where an Order will seldom have more than a handful of members, this is often times informal, with the member having the most seniority, or the most popular or charismatic individual making any minor decisions as needed. Understandably, this lack of formality is restricted to local chapters only, as higher levels of organization dictate greater amounts of structure.
All of an Order's chapters in a given area are part of a conclave. In most respects, the conclave is the heart and soul of the Circle, for this is where most of the interaction between members takes place during semi-regular meetings. Each conclave is led by a nomaner (literally, "wise one"), chosen by the members themselves. This individual has the right to select a handful of assistants, who usually - though not always - become candidates to take the position of nomaner when the time for change arrives.
Every conclave, in turn, belongs to one of their Order's four shards. Each shard is anchored in one of the Circle's four main citadels, and covers a major chunk of Antaron's geography. From time to time, a shard will call a "Bulisiar", which is a great meeting, and nomaner from each conclave will attend to address serious issues. Of course, an organization as important as a shard requires a strong leader, and that position is filled by a mage known as a sintara (literally, "person of great knowledge").
The title of sintara is, in many ways, the most coveted position within the Circle. For one to become a sintara, they must have first been a conclave's nomaner for a reasonable length of time, and will often have served as an assistant to the pervious sintara, as well. The office of the sintara is one that is not selected lightly, as the title is typically held either until the death of the mage, or the individual's voluntary retirement. Nothing else short of a unanimous vote of the other three shards' sintaren can remove a sintara from office.
The four sintaren are the absolute authority of a given Order; their word is law. However, this power is designed with an inherent balance - each other. Since there are four shards per Order, issues can and do become deadlocked. Many times, this leads to further discussions, reconsidering, or political maneuvering before an accord can be agreed upon. Other times, an impasse is reached, and the issue is tabled.
Each Order operates largely as an independent entity. However, some issues are common to mages of every walk, and some problems affect more than one Order. Furthermore, there must be some force in place to ensure that no Order exerts too much influence in the Circle, and that the organization as a whole continues to prosper. That organization is the Council of the Learned, typically referred to as the Council.
The Council consists of one representative from each of the eight Orders. This archmage, known as a valistar (literally, "mighty wizard"), is not only one of the most powerful mages of his or her Order, but one of the very wisest, as well. The title of valistar confers heavy responsibility to go with its great power - an individual so named is expected to embody the very principles of their Order, and to place those ideals above any personal feelings.
As Valistari must have ready access to a wealth of experience, they are almost always aged individuals before taking office. These seasoned archmages command great respect from all other wizards, and once the title is earned, it cannot be taken from an individual - the mage can only leave the office through retirement or death. However, valistari have little say in the affairs of their own Order, which can make the position undesirable to those with little more than political ambition.
The Council itself deals almost exclusively with issues that face the Circle as a whole. No decision can be reached without a majority vote of the valistari, and abstaining votes are not allowed. This creates many deadlocks, but in theory assures that any decision made is in the best interests of the Circle as a whole.
The Eight Orders
Upon passing the Test - and being accepted into the Circle - a new initiate must select an Order to join, for there are no unaffiliated Circle mages. It is generally accepted that, once an initiate has pledged their loyalty to an Order, that they will remain a member of that Order for the rest of their lives; only in extremely unusual circumstances do mages change Orders.
A ceremony follows in which the nomaner of the Order's conclave symbolically bestows a token of the Circle upon the new member - a plain gold band with the member's initials engraved within, to be worn around the neck on a plain silver chain. This band is a smaller version of the Circle's own device, and allows the mage to be immediately identified as a Circle member by any other member. With the utterance of a simple incantation, the member's band will glow in his patron Order's color for a short time. It is considered all but a crime to be found at any time without your band.
The full version of the device is a large gold and silver ring with eight stones set at equidistant intervals, with each stone of a color representing an Order. However, the full device is seldom used outside of the four shard citadels. Instead, a similar nondescript gold ring is commonly worked into signs, symbols, and identifying marks. In this way, those of the Circle can tell where allies may be found, while mundanes often have no idea as to the significance.
The eight Orders are:
The Order of the Secret Storm - This order seeks power, and relishes in the use of it. The membership almost exclusively consists of mages who specialize in invocation and alteration magics - those that deal in directly demonstrable power. Conflict is dealt with decisively and dramatically, preferably ending with the opponent in smoldering ashes.
For formal occasions, members of the Secret Storm wear charcoal robes, with the dress of ranking mages trimmed in midnight blue. Tharandul Greystave, founder of Felarin, is a member of this order.
The Order of the Inner Eye - This group is determined to delve deeper into self-perfection through the control and unification of magic and the body. Divination, abjuration, and transmutation magics are the areas of focus for this order. Those of the Eye usually care not for politics or maneuvering, and deal with their own matters internally. Truly renowned prophets and soothsayers come almost exclusively from this order, as few mortals can hope to match their prowess at sensing those things beyond normal knowledge.
Mages of the Inner Eye wear deep purple for formal matters, and ranking members trim their robes in silver. Palissa Rivenstall, the seeress of Tharbad, is a member of this order.
The Order of the Blood - This group of wizards concentrates on the protection of magic itself. Students of all magical disciplines are welcomed so long as they adhere to strict rules pertaining to the distribution of magic, magic items, and magical creation. Other orders view this self-appointed "police force" alternately as a blessing or a curse, depending largely on the situation at hand, and whether the Blood agrees with the position of the order in question.
Members of the Order of the Blood wear crimson robes on occasions where formal dress is called for, and higher mages use black trim to denote their station. Maelinda Irichros, warder of the jagged spire, is a prominent member of this order.
The Order of the Evergreen Oak - These casters seek to further the view of magic not as a supernatural power, but as a force as natural as the ocean tides or the mountain winds. Friends of druids, they seek to exist in harmony with nature, and never work against it. Alteration and transmutation magics are easily the most common disciplines in this order, though there are no set requirements that specify this. Those of the Evergreen Oak are known to often live the hermit life, caring not for the acclaim of society and culture.
When called to formal gatherings, members of this order wear robes of rich summer green, and higher members trim their robes in brown. Mattue Ingatto, the renowned Archmage of Sundel, is a member of this order.
The Order of Gilded Hands - Nothing is too great or too beautiful for these illusionists and charmers. They use magics for pomp, circumstance, and artworks, and some of these members are regarded as artists of great renown. However, the primary focus of the Gilded Hands lies in the manipulation of the perceptions of others; hence, most of their members deal heavily in illusion and alteration magics.
Gold is the color of choice for this order, and in any gathering, their robes will be of this color. Influential mages of the Hands will trim their robes in silver. Viridálë San'til'alda, the ancient wizardess of Istalindir, is a member of this order.
The Order of the Walkers of the Planes - These mages care little for this world, instead focusing on that which lies beneath - and beyond - the surface of our reality. Their power is used to travel to planes of existence unknown to the common man, to contact beings from those planes, and sometimes, to harness those beings to do the caster's will. While it goes without saying that summoning magics are a virtual prerequisite for this order, it should be noted that skills in abjuration and enchantment are invaluable, as well.
Walkers of the Planes wear vivid orange robes, with those having authority trimming their garb in red. Shylock Weir, noted sage and traveler of Antaron, is a Walker.
The Order of Bone and Breath - Possibly the most feared order of all, those who belong to the Order of Bone and Breath study the relationship of the life force with the body, and how magic affects this relationship - otherwise commonly known as the forbidden discipline of necromancy.
The term necromancy often conjures images of evil wizards at the head of an undead horde. This is not necessarily the case; it is not unheard of for a student of this order to research methods to accomplish healing through arcane means, for instance. However, the stereotype is rather accurate, if somewhat limited - necromancers not only raise undead hordes, but are frequently responsible for many of the most grotesque "experiments" known to the arcane world. Owlbears - fearsome creatures born of magic and madness - are a rather tame example of the avenues that some necromancers choose to explore.
Not surprisingly, those of this order elect to wear robes of the darkest ebony to any sort of gathering. Ranking members trim their robes in a sickly, contrasting green. Lord Dedrix Keth of Davnor is a prominent member of this order.
The Order of the Keepers of Mysteries - This order prides itself in the collection of magical knowledge for its own sake. This order is a prideful lot, even among mages, and they are often considered pompous and arrogant by their colleagues - it is no secret that they consider themselves to be Jusarin's own. Students of every magical discipline are welcomed, however, as the Keepers hold all knowledge as precious.
Members of this order wear robes of royal blue to formal occasions, and ranking members denote their status with white trim. Justinarius Dragonsblood, noted archmage of the Academy in Felarin, is a member of this order.
Thanks to t_catt11 for this contribution!