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Chapter 12

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“There are times when destruction is a kindness. When there is a cancer that must be excised so that the healthy body can go on. Sometimes it is an individual. Sometimes it is a world. The universe is a living organism, they say. Then I am a surgeon.“

—The Necessity, Valtoris Blackstar

Sylvas Vail’s heart felt like it had just stopped. It sat leaden and useless in his chest. “I thought that you said I’d stopped it in time. I thought you said that…”

“Aye lad, you stopped the Harrower, but there were other eidolons made it through. Lesser ones, a few class 2 Ravagers and…” Fargus paused for a second to look askance to his colleagues who were doing their best not to make eye contact. “Well… the fact is… the planet isn’t alive anymore, and even if it was, there aren’t enough of your people around for you all to keep living here. You wouldn’t have enough bodies to keep breeding without consanguinity setting in. You know, birth deformities and such. And that’s only if you all found a way to survive the Eternal Winter that will fall upon your world now.”

There was a long pause as the man simply stared back at Sylvas before gently shaking his head. “What you did was keep the planet together long enough for us to arrive. That means those that survived everything, well, it means they still have a chance…”

But even so, the knowledge was almost too much for Sylvas to bear. After everything that he’d done to save Croesia, after everything all of them had done, it still wasn’t enough. “How many people died?”

The bearded mage shifted uncomfortably from one white-clad foot to the other, Once again glancing over at the others of his squad in the hopes of some rescue from this awkward conversation. “Can you not scry for yourself and see…”

Sylvas cut him off with a shake of the head. “How many? Please. I…I need to know.”

But the answer didn’t come from Fargus, his rescue arriving instead from the point-eared woman who’s voice echoed across the tower’s peak. “Ninety percent is our best estimate. Some of your people may be out of sight somewhere our scrying can’t reach but at the moment…that looks to be all.”

Ninety percent?” Sylvas repeated it back, certain that there was some mistake, that he was somehow misunderstanding what he’d just been told. “Ninety percent of all the people in Croesia are just…gone? It’s…it’s not even been a span since we started the ritual. How…how can that even…”

“I’m sorry lad.” Fargus stated, his shoulders slumped as he looked back at Sylvas. “There’s a reason we come down hard on eidolon summoning.”

“But how?” Sylvas demanded, his voice breaking even through the focus of the Unburdened Mind and threatening his composure. “How… how could so many have…”

“Because mundane weapons can’t so much as scratch Eidolons. And it seems that you and all the other mages of your world were here.” The horned mage, who had mostly been ignoring Sylvas until now, grunted. “There was nothing they could do.”

“Nothing they could do.” Sylvas repeated as the mage’s words slammed into him, prompting the true scale of what he had done, inadvertently or not, to race through his mind. Not only had he summoned these things into the world and let them run riot, slaughtering all but a tiny fraction of Croesia’s population, but he had also been the only one who could have stopped the monsters when they arrived. 

The other mages atop the tower could have fought, he told himself, grasping for whatever straw he could find to keep his sanity intact, yet to no avail. But at the end of the day, it was my responsibility as the best of them to lead by example. That’s what I thought I was doing…right up until…until… 

It was right at that moment that Sylvas’s focus finally gave out, that his increasingly tenuous grip on his Paradigm, finally failed, leaving all of reality, and the pain associated with it to come crashing in. Arriving all at once, Sylvas found himself driven to his knees by the impossible guilt of what he’d done, the pure agony of his injuries, and the sheer exhaustion of his journey through it all. 

“It was me,” he whispered through the storm that threatened to consume him. “I killed all those—”

“No you didn’t. Don’t ever think that.” There was an edge of emotion in the point-eared woman’s voice as she viciously cut off Sylvas from finishing, her presence arriving at his side a moment later. “Whoever gave your planet the arcanum for the ritual did so deliberately. Whoever taught you to summon; they’re the ones responsible. The power you used should never have been in your hands to do this in the first place.”

“But I still did it.” Sylvas voice cracked. “I… I spent my whole life learning how to use magic, all for this and…”

“It doesn’t matter.” The red horned man didn’t crouch down by his side like the woman as he spoke. “You aren’t the first person to be tricked into doing something you didn’t want to. Doubt you’ll be the last either.”

“Aye, lad, what’s done is done.” Fargus said from Sylvas’s opposite side. “No point in breaking yourself over it. Not when you’ve still got a path forward.” 

“That’s right.” The point-eared woman said, Sylvas seeing something akin to a forced smile on her face when he looked up towards her. “The Empyrean Alliance will take care of all those who survived. They shall find you refugees a new home, the same way that they always do in circumstances like this.”

“What?” Sylvas repeated, the day’s events and everything he was currently experiencing making it impossible keep up with the conversation’s abrupt shift. “What do you mean refugees?”

“I mean what’s left of your people, lad.” Fargus said as they shuffled in closer to give Sylvas a pat on the shoulder that sent pain lancing through his mana-wracked body. “They’ll all get new homes, lives, all they could want for to start anew.”

“But this is our home…” Sylvas started to say, only to trail off as the woman shook her head beside him.

“Not anymore.” She stated curtly, it seemed that whatever sympathy she had been drawing on had run out, bringing the familiar cold analytic voice back. “Beyond the devastation of your population, the death of your world soul will send your planet into an ice age for the next several centuries, at the absolute least. After which it might rekindle itself if the stellar currents bless it with enough mana to do so. And that’s assuming if deep-earth scrying doesn’t produce any interesting mineral results. If it does, then it’s more likely to be cracked open and mined completely empty.”

Once more, Sylvas mind spun at the news. The whole planet was going to be uninhabitable, there were only a handful of people left, he had been deceived. Either the grand masters had known all along that they were bringing about the end, or they too had been too stupid to recognize that there was certain doom at the end of the path they walked. 

But if they did know, then they already paid the price for their treachery, Sylvas thought with a burning anger that he had never known before this moment. But that means whoever gave them the sacred…no, they were never really sacred books, were they? Whatever they were, whoever gave them to the old masters are still out there. Living free to do it again…and again.

Mira was gone. He’d never hear her laughing at him again. Never hold her hand as they walked in the courtyard. They’d never see each other again.

Without the Paradigm to keep his mind clear, all sorts of thoughts and feelings overtook Sylvas as he pondered that thought, but none of them were as powerful as his newfound rage which only continued to grow. 

“Who did this?” He demanded as he forced himself into a sitting position. “Who gave us the spells, who set our world up to die?”

All three of the white-armored mages nearby looked at each other when Sylvas asked that question, their eyes dancing between one another in a way that suggested some sort silent communication, yet even so, none of them broke the silence that had fallen. After a long moment of simmering with anger, Sylvas was about to break that silence himself, likely by shouting and demanding answers like one of the spoiled princelings he’d been forced to teach years earlier. Thankfully before it could get to that, the lady in white cut him off before he could shame himself with that kind of outburst. 

“I can assure you, that if the Ardent were aware of that, this incident would not have occurred.”

Sylvas took a deep breath at the meaningless answer, using the space it gave him to settle his emotions, stopping just shy of falling back into his Paradigm. Then once he was calm, he simply asked a second time, “You don’t have any idea who is responsible?”

This time it was Fargus that replied, and with more sympathy than Sylvas expected. “Lad, the trouble with uncontacted planets is in the name. We aren’t in contact with them. We didn’t even know you existed until today.”

The idea that a whole world had been entirely unknown was a momentarily stupefying thing for Sylvas to process, but when he thought about it didn’t take long for him to understand. He himself hadn’t known that there were other worlds up there among the stars that had bright red men with horns, or little men with beards or women with pointed ears among them. So the reverse was only fair, if still frustrating in its own right. 

“Our presence here is a result of alarming mana disruption spikes on our long-range divination.” The point-eared woman explained. “Otherwise we would have remained blissfully unaware that this world was inhabited. The galaxy is simply too vast otherwise.”

“Is inhabited.” Sylvas replied with a shake of his head. “You must know that my people aren’t going to want to leave. At least not easily.”

Fargus let out a sound like a sigh, at that. “Aye, we know. But we ain’t in the business of saving people just to let them kill themselves after. So that will be…um, accounted for.”

“Indeed. Resistance among the general population is expected, and appropriate force will be applied as necessary to preserve your lives.” The woman stated, her words coming so casually that it left Sylvas at a loss for words.

“I—”

“No, that’s enough now.” She interrupted with a shake of her head, folding both her tablet and quill back into whatever invisible space she hid them in when they weren’t in use. “It would be best if we take you directly to the healers. You are suffering from severe injuries as a result of your interference with the summoning spell and your conflict with the eidolon.”

“Hold on now lass.” The bearded one called back over his shoulder. “Did you scry him?”

She didn’t tut, but a tut was clearly on the tip of her tongue. She looked Sylvas up and down, eyes resting on the ruin of his arm, the blood soaked through his tattered robes and running down his face like tears. “I have eyes, scrying was unnecessary at this juncture.”

“Do it,” The short one replied, ignoring her tone. “Check him out.”

That same eye manifested over the pointy-eared mage’s head as she cast and then she blinked, hard. “That is… unexpected.”

The short one chuckled. “Ain’t it just?”

Sylvas had suffered through quite enough of being talked over.  “What are you talking about?”

“Your core, lad.” He pointed at Sylvas chest. “You’ve got enough room for mana rammed up you to make a third circle mage flinch. And you were holding it with just one?”

Sylvas felt like his head was about to explode. There were mages with more than one circle. No wonder these strangers were so much more powerful than him in spite of all he had done to advance. He’d been missing that vital foundational information. 

“You can make more than one circle?” His mouth moved on its own while his brain spun out into all the possibilities. If three circles were possible, then how many more could he create? Was there any upper limit to his growth?

“Wherever they put him, they’d better make get him training. Shame to waste that potential.” The red man said the last word with particular contempt, looking down on Sylvas where he lay in the dirt.

The pointed eared woman brushed it all aside with a flick of the wrist. “Regardless of what his future may hold, he shall be deprived of any future if he does not receive medical treatment. One of us should take him to the nearest healer with all haste.”

The world was ending. Everyone he had ever known was dead. He was responsible for casting the spell that had done it and now everyone else on the planet was going to be forcibly removed and sent off to who knows where among the stars. He had not become the greatest mage on the planet so that he could stand aside and let things like this happen. With more circles of mana forged within him, the magic he could perform would increase exponentially, he could fix this, some of this at least. All it would take was time. So long as he could stay here on his world, there was still hope that he might restore Croesia to some part of its former glory, regardless of what these ‘Ardent’ had to say for themselves.

Sylvas had not been idle as they talked over him and his head spun with all the new knowledge they were bombarding him with. He had placed his working hand on the ground and worked it around until the ash felt compact enough that it wouldn’t just slip away the moment he moved. He had rocked himself forward until he could bring up his knees without immediately toppling onto his back. Pushing off the ground with all the strength that he had left, he rose. “Croesia is burning. I don’t need a healer, I need to…”

Sylvas stood at his full height for just one moment, towering over the bearded mage who had first rescued him, eye-to-eye with the horned one, and he felt the world shift beneath his feet. For an instant he thought that the tower had been so abused through the summoning and the battle that it was going to fall, then he realised that it was not the vast edifice of stone that was toppling, but him. He had lost too much blood. He had suffered too many injuries. Darkness was encroaching from all sides and the dusty remains of his old life rushed up to meet his face before he lost all awareness.

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