The world wasn’t always like this.
Once, long ago (so the story goes; so long ago that the story is all that is left) it was a bright place. Beautiful, verdant, and lush the world over. Forests and grasslands, mountains and seas.
Beautiful, but flawed. It was a world of great triumphs and great perils, a world of kingdoms at war. A world where armies of beasts marched from the shadows, where great heroes fought dragons and mud farmers matched wits with kobolds and taxmen.
A world of stories. A world of magic.
There was a city, whose name has long since been lost to memory, who was more magic than most. It called its own a circle of great mages; adventurers, who had saved it from a terrible blight and found great power and wealth in the process. Both of these they resolved should be used to help the city they called home, in the best way they knew how.
They founded a school. Not the first of its kind, by any means; in those days, magic was an eldritch and unknowable thing, and only through years of study could it be grasped and mastered. But theirs was different; it accepted everyone, from the highest-born noble to the lowest peasant, and made them as equals before the vastness of magic.
Perhaps it was this attitude of cooperation and study that made their methods change. Perhaps it was the vast resources of the school’s founders. Perhaps it was a fluke. Whatever the case, as more and more people joined the school, the means of studying magic began to shift. No longer was it a private and secretive thing, a pact between a wizard and the universe to be jealously guarded. Rather, it was a thing to be explored, to be shared, to be questioned.
And the question was why?
Why did magic words produce such grand effects? Why did certain materials fuel spells, and others did not? Why could a slight difference in an arcane rune or a gesture mean the difference between success and failure?
The students of the school asked these questions. And the weave of magic gave them answers. A word could be reduced to a series of tones. A spell component, a simple chemical. A gesture, the movement of a particular geometry through unseeable dimensions. New discoveries were made every day.
And once they were found, they were replicated.
First came the enchanted items, hundreds of them sold for cheap first to the school’s home city and then to others. Ever-burning lamps, flying ships, cupboards that could produce food to feed an entire family for weeks, all sold for just enough to recompense the cost of making them. On these alone, the world could have changed.But the school, now The University, did not stop there.
It was the first thaumic engine that truly changed the world. A device that, given the proper reagents, could be activated and used to cast a spell by a layman, with no magical training at all. It is said that the first was a tower that could control the weather with the pull of a lever, presented to a mighty king, and that the next was the same presented to the mayor of a peasant village so that their crops would never go unwatered. The next day, there were more.
And by their workings, the world was made better. Within a year, every city had them. Within 5, the golems had begun to take over menial labour. Within 10, the first of many peace treaties between rival nations was signed. Neither needed anything from the other any longer, and with the happiness the engines provided, old hatreds were allowed to die.
It was a utopia. A golden age unlike any the world had ever known. And The University kept on producing, and researching, and working to unveil the ultimate secrets of magic themselves.
Perhaps they did, and that was their undoing. Or perhaps the weave was simply stretched too thin. But one day, long after the world had become unrecognizable in its use and dependence on the engines, the magic left.
Thus began the War.
Without the magical technology that had become the keystone of society, entire nations crumbled overnight. Others, the lucky ones, survived, only to lash out desperately at their neighbors as formerly boundless resources became all too limited, all too precious. It was everyone against everyone, brother against brother and town against town. Civilization as it had been known was no more.
In the savagery of the War, history was wiped away. No one even knows how long it lasted, or how many died. But it was The University that ended it.
They had discovered Azoth. The magical essence of things, sealed away within rocks and trees and water and life, independent of the weave but unreachable until now. Each precious crystal of it contained enough to bring magic back, for a time, enough to power a thaumic engine. The University used this to make more, and that to make still more. And then they made weapons.
A world without magic could not stand before such might, and it fell before them quickly. Rather than conquerors, however, they saw themselves peacemakers. Each nation that fell to them had its engines updated to run on azoth, and was set free again, to govern itself as it saw best as The University moved on to the next.
They were heroes, restoring light to a darkened world.
But this, too, was long ago.
Some say The University made peace in the world simply because they craved quiet, so they could continue their research undisturbed. They distributed their discoveries to the new nation-cities, building first at the behest of their rulers and then at their own discretion. With the power of azoth they constructed such wonders as even the world before the War had never seen, and with each marvel they grew less interested in the people they made them to aid. The need for new azoth began to take its toll.
There is no world now, save for what The University has made. The cities are powered by engines no one understands or questions, and the world outside them is a blasted waste, stripped first of life and water, then of miles of earth itself, strip mined to produce new azoth to maintain the nations. The Archmages in their high towers no longer speak, may not even know of people or their needs anymore.
One day, the world itself will run out. We will eat it to its very core, and nothing will be left for us thereafter.
All we can hope is that The University will save us again.