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Chapter 13

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“Humans, being the most populous. Elves, being the wisest. Dwarves, the most industrious. Fiends, the hardiest. The Najash, the most naturally cunning. These make up but a fraction of the sapient creatures with which we share this universe.”

—The Sentient Species, Mison Aelweth

Spaceships were less exciting than Sylvas might initially have imagined, though he had hardly gotten the best view of them so far. From waking up in a stark white infirmary somewhere in high orbit above Croesia’s equator to eventually being released into the equally blank holding bays alongside the rest of the remaining population of the planet there had been little of interest. These parts of the ship were deliberately designed without windows. It wasn’t out of cruelty, it was necessary. Most people who had never been in space before tended to get extremely agitated when they looked outside and saw nothingness dotted with stars for the first time. Sylvas seemed to be the only one among the Croesians who felt some spark of excitement over it. To be above the sky, out here in the vast cosmos would have left him elated, if the cost for this flight hadn’t been his most of the life on his home planet.

The Ardent ships that had arrived first were sleek constructs of the same shining white material as they crafted their armor from, but the bigger ships that had arrived later from the Empyrean Alliance to collect the refugees weren’t nearly as pretty. Huge blocky things, like haphazardly cobbled together cuboids of bare metal that stretched out so far that Sylvas couldn’t see both ends of one at once. From what little he’d been able to gather in his limited interaction with this ship’s crew, the blocky ships were more or less the standard everywhere. They never entered an atmosphere, so there was no need to make them aerodynamic.

Sylvas Vail was twenty years old by the reckoning of his planet, he had no job, no home, no friends, no relationships at all, in fact. His future had been preordained for him up until the moment of the summoning and now he was in an undiscovered country with no plan or even an inkling of an idea about what he wanted to do with himself. There wasn’t even anyone for him to commiserate with about having accidentally destroying their home world, because the short, bearded Ardent had dropped by the infirmary while they were still healing his arm back into working order and casually mentioned that telling the other refugees that he was responsible for them becoming refugees, even if it wasn’t really his fault, was a pretty surefire way of getting strangled in his sleep.

The short mage, Fargus, was from a people called the Dwarves who mostly dwelled in asteroids and mining colonies, and he had shared a few pieces of advice with Sylvas, beyond insisting that he not out himself to his fellow refugees. Advice that he was now sitting in solitude, turning over in his mind.

“They tell you that they don’t know who’s seeding uncontacted planets with Arcanum, but they’re lying. The official line is that it’s unknown because it ain’t ‘politically correct’, but everybody knows the Obsidian Dominion are doing it.” Fargus had grumbled this into Sylvas ear when he first pulled him in for a hug. A hug that left the slowly regenerating remains of his arm screaming in pain. All down the length of it, the sigils of the spell were still marked, imprinted permanently on his skin by the time they were held there, burning. None of the magical healing that was available had been able to do anything about them. Though the healers did promise he’d get the full use of his arm back, eventually.

His own research into the Obsidian Dominion since release from the infirmary hadn’t turned up much information. They are a rival power to the Empyrean, a feudal dictatorship, rather than a democracy, as a non-citizen, the information that he could pull up on the enchanted slates that they refugees had been given to help them learn about the new structure that their lives would follow was extremely limited. The idea that it was somehow rude to ask about the Dominion was implanted in Sylvas anyway, he wasn’t about to risk offending the Empyrean when his life depended on their kindness.

“There’s a lot they don’t tell you when you get evacuated. Most refugees wouldn’t want to hear it and we wouldn’t want the hassle. The rest of your folk, they’re sheep. They’ll go where they’re told and wear whatever shackles are put on them, but you’re a bright one, lad. You can come out on top in all this.” Fargus had explained once the medical staff had moved off and left them to their conversation. “Moving planets, housing, jobs, even establishing new colonies, that doesn’t come cheap, and your people are going to be the ones stuck with the debt. It’ll take them centuries of hard labor to pay it back.”

They hadn’t been rescued to be enslaved. Technically, any one of them could go elsewhere, owing nothing more than the cost of their passage off-world, but given that none of them had anything to their name, even that tiny debt would follow them forever. It seemed that the Empyrean’s debt collectors were almost omniscient, by Fargus’ telling. To go anywhere else also meant abandoning what was left of my people, and trying to find my own way in a vast galaxy that not one of them knew the first thing about. It was no wonder that nobody from Croesia had even thought about it.

“What you need to do is get yourself citizenship. Citizen’s debts to the Empyrean are forgiven. And I reckon I’ve got just the way for you to do it.”

The slate that he’d laid down on the bed for Sylvas wasn’t the ‘acclimatizing information’ one that everyone else had been given, the magic shone differently, and it wouldn’t power up without him feeding it a thread of mana from his own supplies. Something that still left a dull ache, even after a full course of treatment.

Words shone up at him in the common tongue of Empyrean Standard that he’d been frantically learning since arrival, the translation spells were simple enough, but he preferred not to need them, it would mark him as an outsider in the long run. 

Join the Ardent.

It was a recruitment catalogue, outlining all the benefits of military service within the Empyrean, all the possibilities for advancement, all the benefits that veterans would receive. Part of that benefits package was citizenship, paid upfront.

“I’m a mage, not a soldier.” Sylvas had given his new friend a pained smile. Following orders blindly cost me my entire planet. I’m not going to sign up to do the same again.

“Look here lad,” The dwarf told him, flicking through the slate’s projected words until he came to what he was looking for. Corpus Mageia. “The Empyrean needs mages like you. Without us, their ships don’t move, their wars don’t get waged and the monsters in the shadows all come crawling out. There’s more eidolons every day. Feels like half the worlds in the sky are trying to blow themselves up when I’m not looking. They need you. We need you.”

“I’m barely a mage at all.” It was hard for Sylvas to admit it, given how much of his life he had devoted to excellence, but it was the truth. On Croesia he might have been the greatest, but that was when he was a big fish in a very small pond, scarcely a puddle on the galactic scale.

Fargus flicked the slate to the next page. Arcane Training. “That’s why you need to join lad. You’ve got the makings of a great mage, you could reach the fifth circle and become a fully-fledged eidolon hunter like me in just a few decades!”

“A great mage?” Sylvas should have been using his Paradigm to keep his cool, but the bitterness of the last few days of suffering were still too fresh. “I managed one spell that doesn’t look like a parlor trick to you people, and it nearly killed me and everyone else on the planet.”

For a moment, Fargus just sat there, as if he was weighing his words, a frown slowly drawing down his bristling brows over his eyes. “Ain’t here to hold your hand while you pity yourself lad. You can suck it up and do something with yourself, or slag off with the rest of your kinfolk to some backwater where you’ll never matter again until you explode from all the mana you don’t know what to do with.”

Sylvas managed a dry laugh. “You don’t make it sound like much of a choice at all.”

“There’s always a choice lad, its just sometimes there’s only one good choice.”

So now he sat alone in one of the few observation bays that the refugees were allowed access to once they’d been given explicit permission, looking out at the stars and trying to decide what to do. Croesia had long ago been lost from sight. They’d set off from the planet almost as soon as everyone was on board, and with him still in the infirmary for the first few days of their passage, Sylvas had completely missed his last opportunity to see his world and say his goodbyes.

He had not received a visit from the elvish woman that he had helped down on the planet, but he had not been expecting to. She didn’t seem the sentimental type. There had been a dry memo attached to his file when the Empyrean administrators were first assigning him a bunk. A commendation for his assistance in tackling the eidolon on Croesia that meant that the guards on the ship were a little more lenient towards his wandering outside the designated bays.

The majority of the Ardent ships had travelled in convoy with them for a couple of days before peeling off to their respective destinations, leaving behind only a single small frigate to watch over them in transit. Fargus hadn’t taken the opportunity to say goodbye in person, being far too busy with his duties, and presumably tired of Sylvas’ whining.

So it came as a genuine surprise when the door to the darkened observation deck swung open and the red-skinned fiend that had shown not the least amount of interest in him walked in and slung himself down by Sylvas side. “Farg said you’re signing on.”

“Good evening to you too.” Sylvas didn’t turn to look at the stern face or horns, he remembered them well enough.

“You shouldn’t do it.” The fiend continued, as if Sylvas hadn’t said anything.

That surprised Sylvas enough that he did turn to look at the man now. “You don’t think it is the only rational course?”

“I think you can’t cut it.” It shocked Sylvas silent. Ever since he’d left the orphanage, all that he had ever heard was praise and admiration for his incredible talents, so to hear someone tell him he wasn’t good enough was a shock. “Training’s hard. Being in the Ardent’s hard. You’re not. You’re soft. Weak.” 

The fiend had said it so casually it took Sylvas a moment to believe what he was hearing. Anger boiled up in him uninvited. “I don’t know what sort of hell you’re from, but where I’m from, there was nobody that suffered more, or worked harder. I don’t fear your Ardent training.”

The fiend scoffed. “I bet you don’t last three months.”

Sylvas knuckles whitened as he tried to restrain himself. Casting on one of the Empyrean’s prized soldiers was a surefire way to get thrown off the ship, directly into space. His voice came out in a growl. “I would take that bet.”

“Fifty gold. That’s your sign on bonus. If you don’t make it the three months, I get to come take it off your corpse.” The fiend’s lips curled up into something between a sneer and a smile, showing off his pointed teeth.

“Fifty gold.” Sylvas snapped back. “You can mail it to me at whatever magical academy they place the strongest mages in.”

A slate dropped from the fiend’s hand to land between them, an application to the Ardent Military, already filled with Sylvas details. What? “Sign it.”

Sylvas ran his thumb across the bottom of the form, willing mana through into the device through that point of contact, and his name appeared.

The fiend’s smile contorted even further as he held out a hand. “Now shake.”

Still simmering, Sylvas grabbed the fiend’s hand. His grip was hot to the touch. Not enough to hurt, but close. 

“Welcome to the Ardent, dumbass.” The fiend pulled Sylvas off the bench, to his feet. “Now let’s get you drunk enough that you don’t have time to regret it.”

“What?” Sylvas staggered to his feet.

“I transferred the fifty gold into your account before I came in here, so you’re buying the first round.”

“What?” He was dragged out of the door the fiend had come in through, and out of the section of the ship non-citizens were allowed to roam.

“Drinks! Booze! Gods, I hope they had liquor on your planet, otherwise tonight is about to get even funnier.” The Ardent mage strode off along the corridor with a spring in his step and a swish in the pointed tail dangling from the back of his armor. 

Leaving Sylvas standing by the open doorway with his mouth still flapping open and shut. “What?!”

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