EPHEMERA: ATHENSASHES

The site of the First Cataclysm remains a harrowing testament to the cost of unchecked magic.

It has been 2355 years and Athens still burns.

Our captain and guide, Harzo Anagnos, slows his cruiser to a halt roughly a mile from the maelstrom; a curtain of roiling, iridescent smoke that has consumed the horizon. Periodically, briars of orange electricity and plumes of verdant flames flicker in the cloud, vanishing so quickly I find myself wondering whether I am imagining them. The faintest hint of ozone mingles with the scent of sea brine and salt. Harzo kills the engine, and silence swallows the boat.

“Is something wrong?” I ask.

“This is as close as we go.”

His gestures and voice are mild, but his emanations and the look in his eyes will suffer no debate. His ship has been warded to withstand the known spectrum of urdic radiation as well as kinetic fields to buffer us against the devastating winds that periodically rip through the region. Today, the skies are clear and the blue waters between us and the Cataclysm are almost blasphemously calm. By every objective metric and principle of magic, we should be safe.

But as I stare into the storm, I feel a hollowness reaching up from my stomach, paired with implacable vertigo. It is as if the storm could inhale me on a whim, and I would fall into it forever. A faint buzzing sensation prickles the periphery of my wyrd, like a long-numbed limb waking up, and a faint tinnitus grows in my ears as I search the swirling dust. A voice in my head tells me to turn away, but I stare until Harzo shakes me gently.

“You’ve been looking for five minutes,” he tells me. “Take a break for fifteen.”

We still do not understand it. Ask any child what happened, and they will tell you Athens was destroyed with a spell. But it is impossible to imagine a single entity possessing such power—even the semi-mythical Arch Mage Homer. If the spell could be contained by letter, gesture, or rune, the language has been lost to time. Surviving records of the event are inconsistent in their accounts. Many describe an incandescent tower of light. Some speculate that he summoned the wrath of gods or the last dragons to eradicate the Ancient Feudalists. Others descriptions wax poetic. High Archon Jotham Tolkien wrote: “Homer knew the Name of the peninsula and scratched it from the ledger of the universe.” Dramatic words, but they scarcely do reality justice.

The Artificers, Arcanists, and other Amagium scholars on our voyage alternate between studying the storm visually and checking their instruments, with Harzo periodically prying them away when they become entranced. They speak excitedly, crack jokes, and make loud exclamations at their inconsistent and inexplicable readings. The stereotype of the somber, tight-lipped scholar-warrior is nowhere to be seen, even among the Keeping Venture that has been assigned as our security detail.

Despite this apparent levity, their emanations and body language carry an unmistakable nervousness. Energy driven by the thrill of eminent danger. At any moment, the weather could turn, casting the maelstrom’s caustic dust out toward us. Life of any kind is extremely scarce in the region, but extremely dangerous monsters—creatures warped by the area’s ambient energies–have been reported on multiple occasions. (Hence the security detail.)

It is also possible that I am projecting. Aside from Harzo, Jamyn and I are the only asfalis passengers on the ship. Even after dozens of expeditions in their company, it is difficult to acclimate to the raw presence of an Amagia’s wyrd and the power in their emanations. Even among their researchers, one feels like a child in the palm of a giant.

Homer’s thesis was that humanity was given wyrd so that he might know the horrors of godhood; a test of restraint. He placed the privilege of magic in the hands of Amagia; originally imagined as men and women who would “abstain from the games of gods and kings, and swear themselves to safeguarding wyrds from violence.” For all intents and purposes, human history began in earnest in that moment. We still count our years backwards from the First Cataclysm.

The First Amagium fell with the Roman Empire in 381 AA. War and plagues presided over Europa until Esmeryl Chaucer, commonly known as the Dread Witch, ended the Crusades with the destruction of Jerusalem in 1600. But I have also looked upon the ruined Holy Land, treading its expanse of irradiated glass in protective artifice. While haunting, it is a far cry from this. This is a hole in the world. This is a wound in reality.

After Jerusalem, Chaucer’s Amagium invented the first system of magic licensure. And for a time, humanity flourished. Freed from the lockjaw of medieval feudalism, we deepened our knowledge of the resting laws and rediscovered long-lost principles of spellcraft. We explored. We built. We grew.

But as artifice advanced and societies progressed, the second Amagium slowly dissolved, Athenaeums surrendering their sacred charge to fledgling nation states, chapter by chapter. Under asfalis governance, magic was quickly put to militant purpose. The two Great Wars that followed razed every corner of the earth. After the Allies annihilated Tokyo in 2289 with RMM bombardment, the world was supposedly united once more.

A Third Amagium for a Third Cataclysm.

Now, less than a century later, Anticordance sentiments have soared, climbing ever higher in the wake of Keeping brutality complaints, economic scandals, and political conspiracies. At home, it is easy to curse the lexiclave lines and condemn a system that could be improved in so many ways, even as exemptions and reforms are passed at an unprecedented rate. But looking into the eye of a storm that has outlived two millennia, those concerns seem trivial. Here, the stakes seem grave enough to justify anything.

[…]

Just before the sun succumbs to dusk, Harzo raises anchor. The lead arcanist begs him for another half-hour of study, to see how time of day has affected the cataclysm, almost like a child bargaining with her father to watch a show airing after her bedtime. But when her tone turns heated, I am filled with an irrational fear: she could bind him with a flicker of her fingers or a few whispered syllables. If she was determined, there is nothing I could do to stop it. And even though the argument ends in laughter, imagined threat vanishing like the lightning in Athens’ ashes, a chill chases me back to shore.

“Athens’ Ashes.” National Geographic. Written by Kareth Cobain with photography by Jamyn Grohl. Edited by Dr. Davnim Robbet Jones. Pages 48-50. Published by National Geographic Partners on Taurus 1st, 2355 in the New Atlantic Union, Washington.