BEL-IRIS

Restraint is a gift.

To speak of a mystery is to grasp for the wind. Among the Archai of Su’Roa, there are few greater winds then Bel-Iris, the so-called “Mother Mage”. Unlike the dignitaries of other nations, Bel-Iris exists almost as a ghost, haunting the thoughts of those who’ve beheld her and making skeptics of those who have not. Even among the Archai she is an enigma, a tree that towers above the forest of her people, yet whose base cannot be found once you enter. But to learn anything about Bel-Iris, we must peer back in time, before any of her people came to this world. Indeed, we need consider what makes them a people at all.

The greater the strength of two opposing forces, the more vital is their balance. The body of an Archai is one such paradox of pressures. Delicately tuned, their outer husk is a mixture of mineral and magic, behaving as a skin but often mistaken for a shell. Like the crust of a warm planet, this husk constrains the “living soul” that dwells within, the two forces united in a painful process known as True Birth. Still, the volatile soul cracks through the surface in seams of light, reminding the dead husk of its role as a necessary burden. And if this balance shifts in favor of either side, the result is a majestic fit of gore and light, ending with the smoldering husk of an Archai corpse.

For thousands of years on the planet of Roa, the Archai practiced a peculiar tradition known as infant surrender. In that former world, it was customary for some families to give a newborn to a monastic order known as the Atahaen, severing any familial bond with the infant for the remainder of his or her life. A group of celebate servant monks, the Atahaen were trained as defenders of the three religious sects of the Archai’s Eru Nae Mar pantheon, as well as bodyguards for diplomatic envoys and the like. Their simple and often silent role placed them on a low rung on the social ladder, rarely taking even a name of their own. And while a tradition like infant surrender may seem extreme to you or I, it is a useful window into the interdependencies of Archai culture.

The monks would house and raise the child, rigidly imparting the mysteries of Roa to them from a very young age. Along with their internal regimen, acolyte bodies would become refined instruments of combat, each a living weapon wielded by a pure mind. Eventually, these young Atahaen would join their brethren in service of the Eru Nae Mar and their people as a whole.

Yet on Terminus, the role of their servanthood took a dramatic turn. When none of the deities of the Eru Nae Mar could be sought out, the leaders of the diverse priestly orders convened and chose to turn over authority of their people to the very ones who had served them for so long. The Atahaen would rule their new home of Su’Roa as one undivided house. The practice of surrendering a child to the Atahaen would likewise undergo a transition of sorts. No longer would parents of Archai infants bequeath them merely out of need, but instead of honor and hope.

Nearly 60 years ago Bel-Iris was one such child, given to the Atahaen before her True Birth. Despite the heavy cost they have placed on her shoulders, she has never lost her love for the way of monks. She is known as the “Mother Mage”, yet cannot bear children of her own. She travels Terminus as much as any Archai, but her lone companions are a pair of prisms. The only warmth at night comes from fires lit by her own hands, and even the simple hope of a permanent home in Su’Roa is denied. Yet these sacrifices do not suffocate her joy, they merely kick it in the side.

Here we need pause. For to tell this tale fairly we must abandon the name Bel-Iris for a time, for in her early days she had no such title. A student under the Atahaen is called simply a “child”, and their relationship to each other that of siblings. For now, the girl who will become Bel-Iris will simply be referred to as, “the child”.

After the near defeat in the Deicide War, the Atahaen considered several blind spots in their preparedness. Among the reforms that followed, it was decided that using the arcane as an offensive weapon in times of war would be a useful counterpart to their defensive tradition. At that time there was no reputation of wizardry among their people, though they have always possessed the ability to grow stone and crystal. Yet the discipline could have failed on two sides: either too much wildness, or not enough. If the Archai saw wizardry only as a necessary evil, it could end up as a loose thread on the floor, unspun from a tapestry to which it did not belong. Therefore the Atahaen chose to take the lead on fostering this new discipline, treating wizardry as a rare flower, fed from the richest soils Terminus could offer. Where other nations might train dozens and overwhelm with sheer numbers, the Archai would train one master according to their own strident standards. This one would train two, these two would train four and so forth. Thus the core of Archai wizardry would use its narrow numbers as a strength, aligning the strict disciplines of a monk with the powerful wiles of a wizard.

The response of the Archai to the addition of wizardry was mixed. Few infants are surrendered in hopes they will become wielders of magic, yet appreciation for the role has grown slowly over time. As for the acolytes, their feelings are generally not considered, as their future is decided entirely by Atahaen councils, with small chance of a life of their own choosing. Into this group fell the child.

In her youth, the child was a model student. Of all things, she burned to be a faceless monk in the venerated halls of the Atahaen, devouring wisdoms of the spirit and body with zeal. Though memory and meditation were her greatest gifts, it was the child’s rigor in training that set her apart from her nameless student siblings. In time, the girl with radiant lavender eyes and obsidian “skin” caught the attention of her instructors, who noted a fervent desire to prove herself. And while these admirable traits are what betrayed her future, they are not the only ways in which she was remarkable.

The Atahaen life can be crushing to fully grown Archai, let alone physical and mental children. It is not uncommon for their souls as well as their bodies to be afflicted by a deep sickness of the heart, to paralyzing effect. The child learned to sense the anguish of her siblings, and some would find themselves drawn to her in kind. Her words were a precious gift, yet it was her voice that healed their souls. Long into the night the child’s song would carry through the polished stone halls, floating between dusk and dawn like a sonnet to their dreams. The Archai voice is renowned for its natural echo, and the child’s song would tend to the supernatural wounds of her siblings, even while they slept. There is a tale of Atahaen instructors waiting for hours at the door of the acolyte barracks, listening for the child herself to pass into sleep, the silence signaling them to disassemble the ring of slumbering siblings and ferry them into their beds. Though in many ways those nights were a break with Atahaen tradition, it was wisdom that guided their order, not ritual. The child’s effect was beyond denial.

On the day she was to go before the Atahaen council that would decide if she was ready to start the path of a monk, the child carried with her the hopes of her siblings. Standing robed and still before the council, it was decided that the child would indeed enter training—yet not as a monk, but a wizard. Without a word, the child was ushered from their sight and separated from her siblings, sent to join the small band of arcane masters. Though the court of her fate seemed to adjourn, the child had one last appeal to make.

Beyond the Black Sand Sea that surrounds Su’Roa, the sheer peak of Gar Lossa rises high above the wintery wastes of mainland Whitethaw. It is there the Atahaen travel to refine and deepen their meditations, as the harsh elements place peril and serenity alongside one another. With her former monk classmates setting off before dawn, the child clothed herself as one of them and secretly entered their column as it headed toward the mountain.

High in the screaming seclusion of Gar Lossa, the group settled in for a day of meditation. Unnoticed under her coverings, the child trekked even farther up the narrow heights. As the sun set with weary youths gathering in a line, the instructors counted heads prior to departure. One was not among them, and they soon found the child alone on the corner of a cliff. There she sat in meditation, calm while the frigid winds raged, deaf as the instructors shouted for her to come down. Nothing could break her concentration or form, motionless as the great rock itself, even as the falling night chased away her Atahaen teachers. Alone, the snow gathered around the child’s feet, piled up upon her lap, and rose to her shoulders. Ice formed over her face and hands, and it seemed she was prepared to perish on the mountain. In her final hours, two Atahaen masters trekked up Gar Lossa to bring her down, with one breaking her meditation with a strike that cracked the outer layer of her chest. Her performance, he whispered in her ear, would change nothing. She would be a wizard, not for herself, but for the sake of her people. And perhaps, he continued as they carried her dimly lit body down the sheer mountainside, she would become the greatest wizard the Archai had ever known. Thawing on a glass table, ringed by flame-filled crystals, the nameless, broken youth woke to a hooded figure peering down at her face. Still unable to move, barely able to even see, she heard words spoken from within the hood’s shadow —

"Awaken, Bel-Iris."

Nothing more was said. The hooded figure’s garment dragged slowly across the floor, disappearing behind the soft flicker of the fire crystals. Hearing for the first time what must be her name, Bel-Iris cried out, gasping and lurching over on her side, cradling her body like a newborn. Archai produce no tears, yet the sound of their weeping is unmistakable, a cadence that is said to “split the hearer in two”. Twin echoes filled that healing room, one of joy and one of grief.

From then on, Bel-Iris took the mantle of a wizard as if it were a family name. She grew the nursery of Archai wizards into a garden of generational strength, even more than her predecessors. Her ability to remain rock of mind and yet warm of heart made her a model to her people and an ambassador to the world. Yet always her strength relied upon the quiet mystery of her meditations, a solitude that none but the gods could enter, were they ever to be found.

Today, if she were to remain in Su’Roa for any length of time, Bel-Iris would no doubt attract the attention of arcane masters from across the face of Terminus. Yet her life is one of constant sojourning, returning to Su’Roa only once a year to deposit her knowledge and meet with the acolytes and instructors of the Atahaen. During that yearly pilgrimage, she carries with her the sum of knowledge acquired, spells and wisdoms from across the planet, held in her mind and deposited into the spell prisms.

She appears like a ghost, without warning, as if made from the grey mists that surround Su’Roa, edges of her gown cut from the thick vapor. She walks down the streets of the city with no desire for recognition, yet it attends her nonetheless. First in the silence of those who catch sight of her, unaware they were waiting to see her until she appeared. Then in the hum of young Atahaen students. They start toward her in a disciplined column, only to finally reach her side in a mass of joy-fed shrieks. These she has mothered not mainly by her presence, which is brief, but by her deposits of wisdom and mirth that dwell far longer in their lessons than she does. Moving through their swarm, she never stops, but sings a few songs with the children at her side. The laughter and noise rising and falling in waves.

Yet quiet resumes when her feet approach the hallowed titan that is the Atahaen citadel. Even the youth fall away in reverential silence as Bel-Iris’ silhouette is swallowed by this sleek and dark-limbed monolith. She sings one last verse to them, a kiss upon their faces, and never slows her gait. Inside the citadel she glides through the pristine halls, the spell prisms floating at her side like obedient sirens, heavy from knowledge and scarred from their journey. The flat crystal in the white gown glint from the flame-filled prisms that light the citadel corridors. The edges of Bel-Iris’ frame shift so little it seems as if she is floating above the floor.

Before an Atahaen council of monks, wizards and more, she will present the masteries she has acquired over the year. She will advise them on their use, warn them of their power, and recommend what be taught and what be kept at a safe distance. From there she will spend the rest of her visit overseeing the future generation of Atahaen pupils, a time filled with work, yet imperceptible from a holiday. At night she still sings to the wounded hearts, the softly lit bodies of Archai children sleeping around her in rings. Yet on these nights her voice never trails, and the new dawn is ushered in with melody and peace. She is the Mother Mage, yet is ever a sibling.

In keeping with her monastic kin, Bel-Iris’ is still ignorant as to who her parents were. It is a testimony to her submission to the Atahaen order, for surely in some corner of their storehouses of knowledge the answer could be found. Yet she has never looked, never dared to search the text of prism or page, nor has requested permission to do so. For Bel-Iris is a disciple of the heart as much of the mind. The precepts of the Atahaen brush away such thoughts like leaves in a storm. When Bel-Iris has finished exhausting herself of wisdoms, practices, and perils, she is permitted to ask the Atahaen council if her replacement has been found, that she may be free to live as she pleases. For over 40 years this answer has been no.

Thus she returns to the unknown for another year. Fading into the mist, crossing the Black Sand Sea, dwelling in the Archai consciousness like a thing not remembered, yet not altogether forgotten.