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Chapter 14

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“The Aions have been called many things by the many cultures that have encountered their relics throughout history, but the one thing that all agree upon is that they are the source of magic as we now know it. It is their language we speak to cast spells. Their technology we cannibalize to travel the stars. Small wonder that there are rumors to this day of the Aions themselves still walking among us. Like kings disguised as peasants.”

—Aions: The Argument Against, Rupe Gongfeller

The fiend was called Kerbo, and he turned out to be less obnoxious after a few glasses of this curious new drink that Sylvas had never encountered before, called whiskey. Either that or Sylvas had become numb to the jibes after his own few glasses of whiskey. He probably learned more about the Empyrean, the Obsidian Dominion, the Ardent, the training he’d receive, and the general state of the universe in that wood paneled bar on a ship zooming through space than he had in weeks of reading the officially sanctioned documentation.

“So the Empyrean started out as a ragtag alliance between the various sentient races who had mastered enough magic to reach the stars. Then it grew out to encompass more and more planets and people as time went on. It sprawled, colonies and outposts spread thin across the whole galactic arm, wherever they can find resources worth plundering.” Kerbo hadn’t even begun to slur his words yet, but the whiskey on his breath combined with the standing temperature of a fiend meant that he was exhaling an alcoholic haze into the air between them. “There’s this ruling triumvirate, elected democratically every decade, but the trio we’ve got now have been standing unopposed except by each other for longer than I can remember.”

“The Obsidian Dominion?” Kerbo nearly spilled his drink when he started talking about them in hissed tones, “They’re everything wrong with the universe. While the Empyrean spread mostly to protect people and help them protect themselves, the Dominion’s goal is conquest. When the Empyrean come across a new civilization capable of space-travel, they extend an invitation to join, along with trade deals and all the other usual diplomacy. When the Dominion comes up on a new civilization, any civilization, they get two options, join willingly, or be invaded. To make matters worse, they’ve got magitech way beyond what anyone other than the Empyrean had managed to cobble together.” Kerbo leaned in close, horns almost butting Sylvas in the face when he whispered, “They’re way ahead of us too. Nobody knows how they’re doing it. Something to do with all the Aion vaults they go after, we think. Maybe something to do with the Eidolons too? They don’t want the universe destroyed, so there has to be some reason they keep trying to get them summoned.”

“The Ardent? They aren’t the standard military of the Empyrean, that was mostly made up of militias from the different species that joined. The Ardent are a special force that was originally intended to only be deployed in case of Eidolon incursions in Empyrean space, but as Eidolons began gaining a foothold and building up outside of Empyrean territory, we had to expand the remit to cover all the uncontacted civilizations that could be protected too. It was the right thing to do to protect people who couldn’t protect themselves, and, you know,  letting enemies mass on your doorstep is a bad idea.”

“That’s why they go so hard with recruiting, why almost every mage in the Empyrean gets an invite if they look like they’d be viable in combat. And that’s why we get the best training and equipment that the Empyrean had to offer. The Dominion might be an enemy that needs to be fought everywhere they brush against Empyrean space, but the Eidolons are something else. They’re an extinction event made flesh.”

Sylvas couldn’t understand why you’d even be a mage if you weren’t going to use that power where it was needed the most, but Kerbo was quick to point out, “Most people weren’t fighters. Besides, mages are needed everywhere, not just on the front-lines. Mages make interstellar travel possible. Common routes within the Empyrean have Jump-Gates assembled in space so that any decent enough caster with basic training can teleport their ship from one system to another, but for rapid travel beyond that, you needed specialists capable of reshaping space. Fighting the Eidolons is important, but without magic everywhere, the Empyrean would grind to a halt.” 

Kerbo was having to yell this last bit over the music. Someone had converted an empty hangar bay into an impromptu dance hall, but unlike the courtly affairs that Sylvas had seen back on Croesia before the fall, on those few occasions that nobility came visiting Telas Mirmir, this kind of dancing was a lot more… intense. The music was deafeningly loud, full of heavy drums and strange sounds from instruments that Sylvas couldn’t place. Each beat of the drums seemed to make the dancers contort and rub up against one another. 

There seemed to be a lot of fiends like Kerbo in the crowd, as opposed to the more mixed human, elf and dwarf populations that had filled out the rest of the ship, so Sylvas assumed that this was their traditional mode of dance rather than something common across the Empyrean. He’d drunk enough of that charmingly chemical-tasting whiskey now that his body moved with the rhythm too. Or maybe he was just being jostled. Sylvas couldn’t really remember how he’d ended up here. Though he did know that his account was down to thirty gold already, somehow, and he vaguely recalled the stout dwarf behind the bar declining to sell them any more whiskey after Kerbo had started a very minor fire in their booth.

There was more whiskey at this dance-hall, and fiends all around him, rubbing themselves up against him, writhing. It was strange, alien, in a way that he didn’t know how to describe. Horned strangers were all trying to coax him into their arms. They didn’t even know him. Nothing beyond the glances that they had given him in the strobing red lights of the dance. 

Mira. She’d been the only one to ever want him this close.

It was all too much for Sylvas, all the noise and the flashing, the softness of skin and the roughness of leather, and especially the way that he felt like the floor was spinning under his feet. He caught a hold of Kerbo’s arm and tried to tell him that he wanted to leave, but some horns sounded in the background, bringing a cheer from the crowd, and Sylvas had no idea if he was heard or not as he staggered his way through the crowd towards what he hoped was the exit.

He had gone the wrong way or gotten turned around somehow. He didn’t end up back by the corridor but by the opening into space. Some genius had opened it up to let the stars shine in, and for a moment Sylvas was on the precipice of the great void beyond. Then he bumped up against the ward that was keeping them inside and the space outside, and he rebounded into the crowd.

Crashing into people like that at a normal dance would probably have been a faux-pas, but at the fiend rave, the man who he’d knocked flying just laughed about it, closing the distance to pat him heavily on the back. One of the fiend women he’d been dancing with earlier caught sight of his face in the strobe of the red lights, and recognized from his expression that he was no longer having a good time, so she took him by the hand and led him through the thrumming mass of bodies to the exit. Something for which he’d have been eternally grateful if she hadn’t then kissed him.

On Croesia, kissing was for people that had been courting for long enough that they were almost certainly going to be getting married. Sylvas was so shocked that he just froze there while the bright red woman shoved her tongue in his mouth. He’d already been nauseous, but the surprise of that forked tongue brushing against his tonsils was almost enough to make him retch up his dinner. Given that dinner had been nothing but whiskey, that probably would have been a better idea than keeping it down.

Mira had been the only one to ever kiss him.

The fiend leaned back, clearly disappointed with the lack of a reaction from him, but then shrugged her shoulders and headed back into the party, letting the bay-doors slide shut behind her and leaving Sylvas standing, stunned, and confused in the sudden silence of the hallway.

For a long moment he waited, swaying, unsure of where he was on the ship, let alone where his bunk was from here. He was regretting the whiskey now, but not nearly as much as he’d regret it in the morning.

Following his ears rather than his memory, Sylvas moved along the corridors of the ship towards wherever he heard voices, hoping that he might come to some thoroughfare through the ship that he could use to get back to the section locked down for the refugees, but he wandered into one wrong place after another. Doors that shouldn’t have opened to his approach swung wide when he stumbled up to them, with a little white shield icon appearing on the slate beside them. The sign of the Ardent. The enchantments that operated the ship’s interior were now aware of his new allegiance. Even if it hadn’t fully sunk in for him.

After wandering into, and being politely ejected, from various areas vital to the ship’s operations, Sylvas eventually found himself back in the area of the now closed bar where the evening had begun. They had come from the observation deck, if he could get back there, then he’d be able to find his bunk. He just needed to get there.

Some kind hearted elf who was heading home after his shift pointed Sylvas in the right direction, and as exhaustion began to overtake him, he found his way to the benches that he had sat on earlier, staring out at the stars. He would sit down there for just a moment. Just to give his head some time to stop spinning. Maybe he’d lie down for just a moment, but he definitely wasn’t going to sleep here.

The stars seemed to sway as he lay there staring out at them. They were in motion anyway, drifting by as the ship made its way to the nearest jump-gate. He blinked, blearily, at them. All those stars could have had planets. All of those planets could have had people. Any one of them could have learned the spell and summoned the Eidolon that destroyed their world. Why did it have to be him? Why did it have to be Croesia?

Shadows had been encroaching on the periphery of his vision for most of his journey to this bench, but now one of them seemed more solid than the others. A figure clad in a hooded robe, just like the grand masters back home. None of them had survived the tower. It had been the first thing that Sylvas checked when he finally came to. So who was it?

“What… what do you want?” He managed to mumble out.

That same cool echoing voice that he’d heard only once before replied. “Only to observe.”

Then sleep took Sylvas over, and all the stars faded away to black.

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