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Chapter 15


“The Standardization of Spells, Embodiments and Paradigms was a necessity for the ongoing growth and prosperity of the Empyrean Alliance. Each culture had their own name for identical magics, and the confusion and overlap became a source of danger. “

—Fundamentals of Arcana, Albrecht Magnus

The day after signing up to the Ardent was one of learning. First, Sylvas learned what a hangover was. Then he learned that someone who had never tasted alcohol beyond watered down wine should not indulge in what amounted to an entire bottle of whiskey over the course of an evening. Then he learned that his time no longer belonged to him. The moment that their recruitment papers were signed, recruits of the Ardent were expected to be available for their duties. 

While he had managed to acquire vital information about the state of the universe last night, along with many anecdotes from Kerbo about what he should expect from his training, Sylvas came to the realization that everything he had done the night before was a very serious mistake as he was awoken by a chirping sound, and had to blink rapidly before the glowing white shape hovering in the air beside his head resolved into a shield shape. He pushed himself up to a sitting position and regretted it right away, as his stomach seemed to turn over inside him. With a fumbling hand, he managed to slap at the hovering shield.

A harsh voice spoke directly into his mind. “Report to medical bay for scrying at oh-six-hundred.”

There was a momentary delay as his head pounded and he tried to decipher the numbers at the end of the sentence, then the voice came again. “Failure to report for duty at the designated time will result in immediate expulsion from the Corpus Mageia training program.”

With a mouth that felt simultaneously fuzzy and gummy, Sylvas managed to mumble. “What… what time is it?”

The little floating shield had already dispersed into the ether and could give no answer. So he had to take several swaying steps over to the doorway and slapped his hand onto the slate there. The time appeared but it took him a moment to focus on it.


He stared at that number as it ticked along to 0557, trying to get his brain into motion. Connecting the dots between that number and the one the sending spell had shouted into his brain.

Through the swirling vortex of whiskey still in his brain, Sylvas couldn’t make head nor tail of any of it. It was only when he forced himself into his Paradigm that he understood what was happening. “Oh… six… oh… no.”

He took off at a sprint. The medical bay was one of the few parts of the main ship that he knew the location of, thanks to having spent so much time there when he first left home, but that didn’t mean that he knew its location in relation to where he was now. He had only the vaguest of maps in his head of the ship’s layout, and that map was currently pretty badly stained with spilled whiskey. If he was back in the refugee bays, he’d have made it in three minutes without straining himself, but from here, wherever here was, it was a different situation. There had to be a direct route that didn’t involve swinging by his old bunk, he just had to think.

Every door in the ship was open to him now, so he didn’t have to worry about running into restricted areas that the refugees were barred from, though he imagined that he’d get expelled from the program pretty fast if he went barging into the captain’s personal quarters or something.

He nearly crashed headlong into a pair of humans coming the other way along a corridor and had to leap clear over the top of a dwarf who had been hidden from sight behind them or risk sprawling both of them on the deck.

“Sorry!” He called back over his shoulder as all three of them stared after him in dismay. Then he was round a bend and out of sight.

If he stopped running to touch a slate, it could probably direct him, but the delay while it did that would make him late. His mind had always been the sharpest tool in his arsenal, and it would not let him down, not now with his whole future at stake.

Sylvas burst through the door at the end of the corridor into another one of the wide promenades that ran along the length of the ship, but it was a familiar one. He’d been here before. Medical was just at the far end.

Since arriving on the ship there had been little opportunity for exercise. While he was in recovery, he had been barred from anything resembling straining himself. As one of the Heralds, he had a strict calisthenics regime that he was meant to follow each morning, but surrounded every moment by the people who the Heralds had betrayed to their deaths had given him a very good reason not to observe any of their customs in case they were recognized. So far as the rest of the survivors of Croesia knew, the Heralds of the Hollow Heart had all died with their world. Nobody had been in any rush to spoil that neat ending to the story of their home-world.

The long and short of it was, that even if he hadn’t drunk so much the night before, he should have been panting and breathless by now. He was panting and breathless, his body aching and complaining from his sudden burst of motion, the slow-healing mana-channels in his flesh inflamed by the sudden blood-flow. The paradigm kept it all at bay. He was aware of all these things, but his mind was not overwhelmed by them. He could make decisions without having to obey the desires of his flesh. His body was telling him to give up, to collapse, to rest and hope that his lateness might be forgiven but Sylvas mind could not be deceived by it. He could push on, push his body past exhaustion, if only for a little while.

He ran along the promenade, twisting his body as he went to pass through gaps in the crowd, jumping up onto benches and leaping clear over the top of the crew and passengers who wouldn’t get out of his way. Every step was pushing his body past its limits, but he just went on pushing.

The slate outside the medical bay read: 0559 when he slid to a halt in front of it and ticked over to 0600 as the door slid open and he stepped inside, drenched in sour smelling sweat.

He had expected one of the Ardent to be there waiting for him. Technically one of them was. Kerbo was laid out on one of the occupied cots with a cold compress on his forehead, snoring like a freight train. But as to superior officers, there were none to be seen. Still nervous about being marked late, Sylvas walked up to the nearest white-robed doctor to check in, remembering his manners only at the last moment. “Good morning, Doctor.”

She was an elf of such great age that her hair had turned gray and there were the beginnings of wrinkles appearing on her face. Sylvas didn’t know enough about the elves yet to say for sure how old that might make her, but every other elf he’d met had looked like they were in their twenties despite having centuries under their belts, he assumed she was ancient. She glanced up from the slate in her hands. “Name?”

“Sylvas Vail.” He did his best to sound like the kind of recruit he imagined that the Ardent wanted. Excited to be here. 

She ran her eyes up and down him observing his sweat-slicked brow. “And what’s wrong with you?”

Sylvas swayed slightly, trying to maintain his balance as his whole body told him to lie down and die. “I was told to report here for scrying?”

She blinked. “You’re the new Ardent recruit?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He did his best to stand at attention.

It seemed that he had finally done something to warrant her full attention. She put the slate down on her desk and nodded towards the cots lining one side of the room. “That one came in looking for you about oh-two-hundred. Thought you were dead.”

Kerbo wasn’t even aware enough of his surroundings to groan. After he’d lost the new recruit in the dead of night, he had presumably had to continue drinking to deal with the guilt of having lost the new recruit.

“Not yet.” Sylvas replied. It was meant to sound glib, but with the way he was feeling, he wasn’t so sure it was a joke. 

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to go drinking with fiends?” She took in Sylvas’ confused expression and sighed. “You’re human. Your people don’t come from planets full of brimstone and toxins. They’ve got a natural resistance to alcohol, same as any poison. You don’t.”

There was a sound like a bark from one of the other beds, and Sylvas jerked his heads around. He thought that one of the other patients was choking but the noise was continuing. It was a dwarf. A dwarf that appeared to be missing both legs and one arm, judging by how the sheet lay over her barrel-like body. She wasn’t choking, she was laughing. “This wee whip of a lad out-drank a fiend? No wonder he looks like krahg!”

Sylvas hadn’t learned any dwarvish yet, and the translation spells that covered the ship didn’t seem to be willing to translate obscenities. Still, he got the general idea.

“Let me get you an antitoxin, then we can scry you.” The doctor led Sylvas away from the dwarf before anything else could be said that the translation spells wouldn’t like. A bright blue liquid in a vial was passed his way, and he knocked it back without question. At this point, Sylvas had absolute faith in the Empyrean’s medicine. It had brought him back from the brink of death with nothing to show for it but some scarring.

It was cool going down, chilling, really. The turmoil in his stomach stopped immediately, and the soothing ice spread out through his body, easing his many discomforts before finally hitting his brain. The hangover vanished in an instant, and he felt like he’d been reborn. “Thank you.”

“Don’t expect me or any other doctor to hand them out every time you decide to have a little fun. Next time you’re on your own. I need clear readings on my scrying, that’s all.” She said it sternly, but there was something like a smile playing about her lips.

“My apologies.” Sylvas smiled back. Then followed her through into an examination room where she had him strip off his shirt so she could get a better look at his scars.

She shook her head as she looked them over, hands hovering above the markings in his skin without ever touching. “Never seen anything like it.”

“I can’t be the first person to ever stop a casting midway through.”

“No,” She conceded, “But your Embodiment and circumstances are unusual, and frankly I’m surprised you survived the damage long enough for us to treat you.”

With that solemn statement, she moved on to the main part of the examination. Casting the same scrying spell that Sylvas had seen down on the planet, before losing consciousness.

“No major health issues that I can see,” She conjured a slate and began scribbling on it. “You’ve recovered full use of the arm?”

He nodded. “I have.”

When she looked at him, the same pale blue glow flickered in her eyes as shone out of the symbolic eye above her head. Sylvas needed to learn that scrying spell as soon as possible. It looked like it had many uses. “First Circle Mage, what’s your Paradigm?”

He was surprised that she couldn’t tell just by looking at him, given the way that her vision seemed to tunnel through his flesh, maybe she was just being polite. “The Paradigm of the Unburdened Mind.”

“Clearmind,” She didn’t correct him, exactly. It was more like she was just telling him what her preferred terminology was. “Not a popular choice nowadays, when there are so many easier options to get you advancing faster.”

“I…” Sylvas was at a loss for words again. There were easier ways to open your mind to mana than emptying it of all thoughts? He had spent months struggling and striving, just to be told now that he’d deliberately taken the rocky path up the mountain. “It was the only one that was available to me.”

“And your Embodiment…” She looked him up and down with a little frown. “Well it isn’t an enhancement. What did your people call it?”

Another way that the Grand Masters and their backer had screwed him over. “Arterium Arcanum.”

“Arterium… heh… Magic Veins eh? Not an inaccurate description.” She conjured a pale crystal wand out of thin air and pressed it’s sharp tip against Sylvas’ arm. Watching as the illuminated mana from the device spread through him, lighting up his mana channels. She conjured out another slate, this one wider and darker, and held it up long enough for the image of his channels to burn into it. “It will make casting spells easier for you than if you’d picked another embodiment, but you’ve missed out on any of the potential physical benefits like improved strength, slowed aging, increased energy and such. For now you’ll be reliant on spellwork alone to get by. It may be worth attempting to counter-balance it with your next circle.”

So he could have been immortal and super-powered, but instead he’d been made into a more efficient channel for mana to flow through. It was hardly surprising, given what the Heralds had wanted to use him for, but it still stung to think on all that he’d missed out on.

She frowned as she looked at his chest, seeing right through the flesh to the core of mana within. “That is considerably higher mana density than I’d have expected from a first circle mage. You must be able to cast far above your level, seven to ten spells between breaks depending on complexity?” He nodded at her estimate, though since leaving Croesia he’d discovered that most of the spells that he’d learned back home were remedial at best, they still required about as much mana as the more complex and refined ones used by people in the Empyrean. He’d be a lot more effective after training, but the actual amount of magic he could do wouldn’t be vastly different. 

She looked up from his core to his face, quizzically, “How are you maintaining that?”

“Daily meditation to replenish anything I’ve used?” He knew it wasn’t the answer that she was looking for, but he had to say something.

“You don’t have some additional technique I’m not able to scry?” Her frown had gone from perplexed to concerned. “Some artifact that helps you maintain circle stability?”

Again, he knew it was the wrong answer, but he had to give it. “No?”

“Right.” She sank down onto a chair, heavily. “As your doctor, I’m going to give you some advice that I normally wouldn’t give. You need to advance as soon as possible.”

That made no sense, if you could be a second circle mage, why would you choose to remain a first circle one? “Why wouldn’t you usually advise that?”

The blue icon of an eye had faded away, and the elf’s eyes were grey again instead of lit up from within. It made her expression easier to read, there was sadness there among the wrinkles. “Because rushing advancement almost always results in unstable progression. The only reason I can imagine that your current circle is holding up so well is because you received basically no instruction in how to combine an embodiment and paradigm to form one, so you had to spend a long time constructing it painstakingly from scratch.”

It hurt to hear it described that way, as if he’d been given a simple task and blundered through it, but the fact of the matter was that she was right. He had been given nothing to work from except the tiniest scraps from the Grand Masters, and he’d been able to pull together a working circle. He could be ashamed of how he’d started out, or he could be proud of his accomplishments, so he chose to be proud. “Painstakingly is right.”

She put her slate aside, letting it vanish back into whatever nothingness all the Empyrean mages seemed to have at their disposal. “At the time, you would have had no mana in containment, so if it destabilized, there was no problem, but if you were to make a second circle with the same haphazard trial and error, it could be lethal.”

Sylvas had only seen the body of one of his fellow students after their containment failed. There hadn’t been much left of it. When the mana had escaped, it had burst out in every direction at high speed, and carried fragments of organs, blood and bones all over the bed-chamber. He was intimately familiar with how lethal failure could be.

Until now, he had been maintaining an expression of forced calm, but this brought out a frown. “Wait, so you don’t want me to make a second circle?”

The doctor sighed. “What I want isn’t relevant. You need to advance, or your overcharged mana-core is going to break containment, and soon.”

After the week that Sylvas had been through, that death sentence didn’t even seem all that imposing. His whole world had been destroyed, both figuratively and literally, he had learned that his people weren’t the only ones in the universe, that the magic he’d spent his whole life cultivating was just a drop in the ocean of what was really out there, so the idea that he’d need to fast-track his own growth as a mage to prevent himself from dying wasn’t really that much of a shock to the system.

“I’m… I’m new to a lot of this.” Admitting ignorance would have been a terrible mistake back home, when he was meant to be the greatest of the greatest, but there was some freedom in just being one among many. “Can you advise me on the best way to advance as quickly as possible?”

“You’ll need to pick out a second Paradigm and Embodiment to form your next circle, there should be a library of the known ones onboard, or you can hold off until you enter training with the Ardent.” She paused to consider, “I’d imagine that they have more combat focused paths available that the general population don’t have ready access to.”

Sylvas nodded along, as if shaping his mind and body to follow a new Paradigm and Embodiment wasn’t a massive and arduous undertaking.

She pressed on. “Your training with the Ardent is liable to be a help siphoning off your mana in training to keep the levels safe. I’d say that by the time you’ve learned your Affinity and hit the Third Circle that your core should be stable again.”

Admitting his ignorance the first time had been difficult, this time it came easier. “Affinity?”

“Wow, they really didn’t tell you anything.” She didn’t sound like she was mocking him. More like she was genuinely surprised at how bad the education he’d received had been.

“The information we were given was…” Sylvas sighed. “Restricted.”

“Well, you saw the Ardent in action, you know that higher level mages have a focus on specific elements.”

Every one of them had only produced magic of a limited type, but given all the ways that they’d used that magic, Sylvas hadn’t really considered it to be much of a restriction. “I assumed it was just specialization through spell selection.”

The doctor leaned back in her chair, letting out a heavy breath before explaining, “The mana that you draw is infused with various elemental forces depending upon your environment. At present, they’re all mingled together, opposing elements neutralizing each other and generally weakening the mana’s potential power. Every mage will eventually discover a limited range of elements that they have a natural inclination towards in Affinity Testing. After that, you can refine the mana that you are drawing in to remove other elements and… you know what. You’re going to a Corpus Mageia school, they’ll explain all this to you in much clearer detail as part of your training.”

“So I passed the scrying?” Sylvas asked, “I am allowed to join the Ardent?”

She held up a hand to stop him before he got too excited. “There is no medical reason that you cannot begin training, whether you join the Ardent afterwards will depend entirely on you.”

“I didn’t realise I had a choice…” He had citizenship now, and he was going to receive the magical training that he needed to advance, if he could elect to leave the Ardent after completing his training, there might have been a whole world of opportunities out there beyond military service.

“It isn’t about choice.” The doctor had returned to looking at her slates, refusing to mean Sylvas eye. “If you pass their tests, you’ll become one of the Ardent. If you don’t…”

He filled in the gaps when she trailed off. “I have to find somewhere else in the Empyrean I fit in.”

She looked up at him sharply. “The only way most people leave Ardent training is in a body bag.”

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