The Gift and the Burden
There was a time when wizards held a position at the top of the great pyramid of society. The great wizard-kings of old passed their Gift down, father to son, mother to daughter. A man or woman with the Gift on the battlefield was worth a hundred of those without, and many tales are told of them riding fearsomely into battle astride their warhorses. The mages shouted words that were meaningless on the lips of others, but from their mouths would produce great displays of lightning from the heavens or produce a feast for a whole company of men.
It is a trait that we now know to be recessive. Two people with the Gift always produce a child who has the Gift. When a child with the Gift is five or six years old, they undergo an intense fever for three days, after which point they will be able to speak the words of power that make up a spell. The fever also marks a person, causing the lines of their veins to be etched on the surface of their skin in black or blue. The lacework pattern of lines on the face was worn proudly as a sign of nobility in the old days, and later as a mark of slavery and burden.
The change happened slowly. In the 5th century, a spell was discovered which allowed a Gifted to recite any piece of writing that they held in their hands. When used with a transcripted spell, it allowed one of the Gifted to simply recite the speaking spell and cast any other spell with perfect precision, even one that they did not know. From that point forward, with a few rare exceptions, the Gifted simply carried around specialized grimoires which allowed them to look through an index, find the spell they needed, and cast that way, with no training, memorization, or practice needed beyond knowing the Speaking Spell. With a few minor exceptions, the Gifted lost interest in the words of power, and the teaching and discovery of new spells, already slow, came to a halt.
In the 8th century, the scholar Kessler discovered the underlying properties that bound the words of power which made up the so-called “natural” spells, and by bearing his full intellect was able to begin crafting spells of far more complexity and utility than had ever been seen before. At the time of Kessler’s birth, the Thaumika Objuriarecorded three hundred and fourteen spells. At the time of his death, there were somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty thousand. It was a revolution in the theory and application of magic … and one in which the Gifted took almost no part. The Gifted spent their days actually casting the spells, heavily reaping the rewards, and ruling from on high. That the research and development was being done by a cabal of people without the Gift did not seem to bother them in the slightest.
In 921, the War of Poisoned Books began. During the grand opening ceremony in Helmsden, all the Gifted were given a single page of densely packed script, ostensibly a visual display of the unification of the Gifted which everyone would cast in concert. In reality, the spell had been replaced with something far more deadly. There are detailed accounts of the blood running down the steps of the stadium, of the cries of the children, of the screams and stench. There are also many accounts of those few mages who survived, those who were hunted down after the fact, and the struggles of the dissidents to ensure that they stayed on top in the ensuing power vacuum. It would suffice to say that in one fell swoop the dissidents won, and in their struggles amongst themselves, became hardened and cruel.
The few remaining Gifted were rounded up. Deprived of their grimoires, and ignorant of the words of power to call their spells forth, they posed no threats. Every mage over the age of ten was summarily executed. Though the dissidents had become monsters in their own right, they still did not have the stomach to slaughter the children. It is not clear whether it had been the plan all along to make them slaves, but when the cities began to starve, the children were locked in small rooms and forced to say the speaking spell over and over again, doing little all day but calling forth bags of flour and kegs of ale from the ether.
Years passed. The Gifted children grew into adults. The speaking spell was refined to produce sounds faster than the unaided tongue could pronounce and the unaided ear could follow. The spells needed to keep the kingdoms running were refined, made remote so that the Gifted would not even know the nature of their casting. A Gifted could go their whole life not knowing why they were forced to repeat the Speaking Spell ad nauseum. Parents came to dread the turning times, worried that their child might have inherited the Gift, for any child with the Gift was forfeit to the kingdoms, stripped of their rights and used as a tool. If the kingdoms were asked, they would say there was a concern the Gifted could rise up once again to dominate those without that power. In reality, modern society could not exist without the spells the Gifted are near-constantly casting to provide food, clean water, waste disposal, energy, and all the other hallmarks of civilization.
To have the power of casting spells is no longer a gift; it is a great and terrible burden.