All mages are gifted with the ability to manipulate particles, (essentially molecules), though in what way and to what extent depends on the individual. Some can regenerate only living tissue of a human or animal, some can do so with matter of any kind, some only metal or inanimate objects. Some can manipulate elemental particles of water, fire, air and earth.
However, no amount of magic can truly make something vanish, or create something from nothing.
To work their magic at all, a mage must be calm and focused; they must concentrate all of their mental effort on the particles, the must “join with” or “become” the particles, fully immerse themselves in them so that they can effectively guide, manipulate or move them. They must drop into a trance-like state. A mage can build up their natural ability over time with practice and effort, though there is also a measure of inherent ability that cannot be bolstered by any means, ie: raw talent.
Because mages must be calm and in a meditative state to practice their art, they are vulnerable while they do so. It would not be effective to manage this in the middle of a battle, and in many cases their magic is only viable in theory, not practice, depending on how easily the mage can sink into the trance necessary to perform their magic. Part of the idea of the sentinels is that they protect the mage from outside harm while they do their magic.
While a mage focuses and actually uses their magic, they can experience fatigue, irregular/slow heart-rate, blurred vision, lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting and general weakness. Rest and time will bring back the user's health to its normal state, however too much exertion can kill a mage, or put them into a coma. To counteract this, mages can practice their powers and essentially “strengthen” their magical “muscles.” Magic is limited by the user's energy, ability, and focus. It is thought to be “in the blood” of a mage, something that they can inherently do, something that's passed through bloodlines, though there are (undocumented) cases of magic “springing up” in lines that have no declared mages. Generally, magic manifests itself at a very young age, and the Circle is very much aware of this, so they keep an eye out for signs of magic in young children and take them to a bastion if they show signs of being able to use it. If a child is found to have magic, it is considered a “stain” of a sort on the family, as some say that the gods detest magic. There are rumors that some magic abilities are hidden from the public eye, especially in prominent/wealthy families who don't want their children taken away.
Magic is also limited/weakened by hematite, a stone mined from the earth, said by the Circle to have been set within the earth to give normal folks a way to control the mages. Hematite – also called the dispelling stone – itself is harder than iron, but much more brittle, so it's often mixed with other metals in order to strengthen it. The sentinels' armor is inlaid/embedded with hematite, as are the very walls of the bastions themselves, the glinting gray stone of which sparkles in the sunlight. Faceted fragments of hematite are used as charms, necklaces, adornments of all kinds, found on jewelry, woven in threads of clothing, on weapons and armor, statues...pretty much everywhere. Its properties are antiferromagnetic, which means (with regards to magic), it “dispels” or pushes the magic away from the user, making it difficult – or impossible, depending on the mage and the amount/location of the hematite - to use magic, especially while hematite in direct contact.
History of magic
Magic is a relatively new development in Aredia, and indeed the continent as a whole. Historians trace its origin to the arrival of a second moon, an oblong satellite called Seren, about 200 - 300 years ago. Much mythology surrounds her arrival, but the most notable change came about several generations after Seren's appearance, which was when magic – the ability to manipulate particles – first became evident in humans. Prior to this, magic was the stuff of legends; there are said to be fairy-like creatures called Fata who inhabit the deepest parts of the earth who can use an old type of magic, but no Fata has been seen among humans for approximately 600 – 700 years.
Following Seren's appearance, all manner of doomsday portents arose among superstitious folk, but after the passing of several generations when nothing catastrophic occurred, folks began to relax and accept the new presence in the sky as simply another fact of life - until magic appeared.
At first it was small changes in only a few people: the ability to heal small wounds without touching them; the ability to create fire without a tinderbox or fuel; the ability to grow a flower from a seed in a day. At first, magic was thought to be useful, a tool, a gift sent from the one to heal a man's wounds or coerce a woman's dying crops to grow, but gradually, as magic became more widespread, people who showed no evidence of strange, new abilities, began to worry. How could those who wielded this power be trusted to do so properly? Many people who had magic were good, honest folks, but there were many whose intent was malicious, whose motivations were spurred by greed and fear. Additionally, magic seemed to have no qualms about its host, appearing in members of every caste.
Several more generations passed; those who could use magic grew in number, never by too much, never becoming the majority, but enough to cause worry among the “regular” folk, especially when magic was in the hands of criminals. The old fear surrounding Seren's appearance in the sky resurfaced, and magic users found themselves persecuted, segregated, or worse. Rumors began to spread: mages can spell you into another creature, turn your blood into sludge and kill you with a snap of their fingers. Urged by fear and distrust, some folks took matters into their own hands; soon, rumors began to spread that mage blood had healing properties, and many mages were captured and slaughtered for this purpose. Those who were gifted – or cursed – with this power, began to band together, taking comfort in their numbers and for the most part trying to live normal lives.
Since it's difficult to use magic with any real effect while not being in a sort of trance-like, meditative state, mages were hard pressed to defend themselves against those who would do them harm. Even those who wanted to fight back with their own magic were not really able to do so; eventually, they tried to retreat and keep their distance. Some of the mages, particularly those from lower castes, wanted to use their magic for a good purpose, and began reaching out to others in their communities. One of the unexpected side effects from all of this is that mages become relatively uncaring of caste distinctions, which is odd for other, non-mages to understand. This notion, along with the magic itself and the distance that the mages keep, has given rise to the idea that mages are so different from “normal” people, so much so that they're almost like a different species of human.
Another unexpected side-effect from magic's appearance is the mages' general distaste for religion. In part because the most fervent followers of the Circle regard them as abominations, in part because they feel a stronger connection to the natural world through their magic use than they feel to some, unattainable, unknowable deity. To a mage, magic and nature are “real” because they can feel them, while the deities are intangible and therefore not as valid. During all of this, the Circle, the religious organization that occupied most of Aredia, demanded that the government take charge and do something about the threat of magic. They said that magic, while it admittedly has its uses, was overall a curse on people, and needed to be contained, at the very least. Some of the more outspoken members of the Circle called for the outright eradication of mages, claiming that they were too dangerous to live.
The mages themselves did not outright argue this fact. Rather, the most eloquent among them tried to make the non-magic users see reason, claiming that they had gifts that the people needed, that it was a shame to waste. Additionally, they said that no mage asks to be born with their power, and that it was a crime to murder them. The king, Avenline Solasar's great-grandfather, was faced with a decision: destroy all magic users or allow them free rein. Neither option appealed to him, though he was known for his fairness and tolerance, so he decided to collect all the mages into several, centralized locations throughout the provinces. It was he who authorized the construction of the bastions, ensuring that the walls were embedded with hematite in order to keep the mages' power in check – a condition of the Circle – but he made the bastions nicer than many of the places where they were living before.
The Circle had been studying ways to counteract magic, and had learned about using hematite in this manner. They created the sentinel order to ensure that the mages would be kept from doing harm to the general populace. In order for the mages to continue to be useful, it was decided that they be allowed to leave the bastions only under the escort of sentinels, and only when the need was great. Whoever wanted a mage to help them had to petition the local Circle official, who would assess if the need was great enough, then send a mage. So it was decided. Gradually, the mages were gathered from places across Aredia and brought to various bastions, to be guarded by the sentinels. They would be safe, and those on the outside would be safe from them. Ensconced in the bastions, they could practice their art and the rest of the world could go about their business as normal, without fear of magic tainting them.