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Chapter 16

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“Of late, there has been some criticism of the recruitment practices of the Ardent. Need I remind you all that the only way that it is possible for you to live in moderate comfort is the constant sacrifices that the Corps Mageia make to ensure that civilization is not utterly destroyed on a daily basis. The next time that you have a complaint about predatory contracts, forward it to the nearest rampaging Eidolon.”

—Unplanned Retirement Speech, High General Ironfist

The rest of the journey was uneventful in comparison to the revelations of his medical. Sylvas never saw Kerbo again, though they did exchange some brief messages via slate to confirm what the doctor had told the fiend: that Sylvas was still alive despite the older man’s best efforts.

Another white shield had appeared to him after the results of his medical were in, and he’d been informed of the travel itinerary in a way that none of the other refugees had been. The ship was currently making for the Farrengul system where there was an active jump-gate that they’d be using to travel further into the galactic arm and the heart of the Empyrean. From there, he and his fellow recruits would jump ship to a military freighter and take a second gate to a Relic World called Strife, where they would begin their training.

The big advantage of citizenship that Sylvas had discovered so far was that he was actually able to look things up when he didn’t understand them. According to his slate, Farrengul was a mining outpost operated almost exclusively by dwarves and fiends. Though it also serves as an unofficial trading post for all of the local non-Empyrean systems, generating an impressive amount of gold in tariffs and tax for the exotic goods that pass through it.

A Relic World was one that had been deprived of whatever original population had lived there by an extinction event. In the case of Strife, this had been an Eidolon of War.

The World Soul is what differentiates it from Croesia. We lost our population and our connection to magic. Strife’s soul lives on, somehow.

The Ardent training grounds on the planet were mentioned in the official records, but details about them were absent. Either the Empyrean didn’t know what the Ardent did there, or their activities were considered to be a secret. Either way, it didn’t help Sylvas to prepare very much.

He had his own room assigned to him on the ship after he’d become a citizen. He could have still gone back to the refugees, and slept in the bunk available to him there, but the idea didn’t have any appeal. Saying goodbye didn’t have any appeal. I was never one of them. 

They came from the same planet, but the worlds that they had lived in had been too different. He doubted anyone would even notice that he was gone. The new room was spartan in the extreme, there was a bed that was little more than a raised platform with a pad on it, a second smaller raised platform to serve as a table beside it, and nothing else. After the lavish accommodation he’d been given back in Telas Mirmir it should have felt sparse, but he was comfortable there for the first time in what felt like years. He had grown up with nothing before the Heralds took him, and the greatest luxury he could ever have asked for was the privacy of his own room. Now he had it.

Most of his time between his medical and the ship’s arrival at Farrengul was spent reading. With the private room, he was able to pick up his calisthenics again each morning, hidden from the sight of others, but it was a brief visit to physical effort before he had to turn his attention back to more pressing matters. His first circle had been made through agonizing effort using the only methods that were available to him, but reading through the slate’s introductory methods for children possessing a gift for magic he realized just how much easier everything could have been. There were specific patterns of mana that he could have used to reshape his mind, spells that he was essentially casting on himself to permanently alter how he thought and functioned. As for the embodiment of magic, very few people, especially children, were willing to endure the painful and potentially dangerous process that his Arterium Arcanum had demanded. Most simply infused the mana that they were gathering into specific organs of their body to strengthen them. Among those planning on military service like he had signed up for, the most common embodiments were of the skin or the muscles. The skin to make it toughened and armored against attack, the muscles to improve their density and physical strength. Even among those going further afield and infusing their nervous system with mana to improve their reaction speed, usually in combination with a Paradigm that would speed up their thinking, didn’t run nearly as many risks as those undertaking the changes he had. If infusing the nerves went wrong, it would be painful, but at least there was no permanent damage, just a slap on the figurative wrist and a chance to start again.

Given where he was starting from, he had taken the doctor’s advice to heart and started examining these basic techniques, trying to find one that he was willing to commit to for the rest of his life. The Paradigms seemed almost comically simple compared to learning how to entirely clear his mind. The Embodiments seemed… wrong, somehow. He had made his body into the perfect tool to channel mana, and he had stored it all carefully inside his core. Infusing it out from that core into his body, whichever system he chose, would have been in opposition to that philosophy. It made him uncomfortable in a way he couldn’t readily explain.

He checked on his core regularly now that the doctor had warned him about the dangers of its density, but he never felt like there was any real sign that his circle was in danger of giving out. It was under strain the same way a barrel was under strain when it was full of water, but nobody expected every barrel to suddenly burst. He’d built his circle for this purpose, and he didn’t know why the doctor thought it wasn’t up to the task.

Their arrival at Farrengul was less exciting than Sylvas had hoped. Peering out of the windows in the observation bay, he’d expected to see some world with the space around it bustling with traffic, but it seemed like he’d greatly misjudged just how big space was. They might have been in the Farrengul system, but that didn’t mean that they were going anywhere near to the inhabited planets or the numerous bands of asteroids circling the bright star he was told was at its center. Even if there had been a hundred other ships out there, he never would have seen them. The distances between ships were kept as great as possible for safety from collision or interference in the propulsion spells, and their distance from the system’s star meant that there likely wouldn’t have been enough light to make out much more than dark spots in the dark sky anyway.

Most importantly, the jump-gate was not built in the middle of the system, but well out beyond its furthest celestial body. And it was the gate that they were here for, not trading or sightseeing. As disappointments went, it didn’t rank highly in Sylvas’ estimates. His last disappointment had been discovering that he wasn’t the chosen one meant to save the world, but the patsy meant to help destroy it, so not getting to see some miners and traders came a distant third. Somewhere behind waking up to discover that he was an orphan.

At least the jump itself was exciting. The blocky Empyrean ship might not have looked particularly sleek or fit for purpose, but that was only because until now, Sylvas had never seen the purpose it was intended for. Lines of sigils ran along the length of the ship’s hull, invisible to the naked eye, but glowing now that the spell to transport them was underway. As they approached the gate, Sylvas finally caught sight of it. A strange square of shining metal hanging in space, with a smaller square inside it, looking far too tiny for their vast craft to possibly fit through.

But again, distance was playing tricks on Sylvas’ perception. As they drew closer, the square became larger. The glowing sigils covering its surface had seemed like nothing more than lights dotted across the flat face before could now be made out. Unfamiliar to Sylvas, but not entirely unfamiliar. The same alphabet as the one he had learned for the summoning, but a different language entirely. Different from the sigils still marked into his arm like a tattoo as well. Whatever language magic took the form of when it was cast, Sylvas hadn’t been able to discover yet in his studies. Another question for his trainers at Strife, when he arrived. 

He’d set aside beginning work towards his next advancement until then too. The options in terms of publicly available Embodiments and Paradigms were just too limiting, he felt sure that there was something better for him out there, and no matter what the doctor said, he couldn’t feel the faintest bit of instability in his core so he wasn’t going to rush into a commitment that would last the rest of his life.

When they were close enough to almost touch the gate, drifting towards it on momentum alone as all the spells that had been propelling the ship until now fell silent so that they didn’t interfere with the teleportation, Sylvas could feel the mana all around him beginning to churn and rush. The sigils on the gate flared. The sigils along the length of the ship did too. Pulsing together in harmony. And then faster than he could blink, they moved.

A flash of light enveloped them as the nose of the ship dipped into the gap inside the jump-gate, then suddenly they were gone. One moment there was one set of stars, the next, another. Sylvas hadn’t felt a thing, but now a shiver ran through him. As the ship was drifting along to its destination, it had been easy enough to watch the familiar stars drift by and adapt, but now there could be no denying that home was far behind, when even the sky was unfamiliar.

He took a breath to steady himself, then jumped when a white shield suddenly appeared at the periphery of his vision. More orders. “Report to airlock 3 for transfer to AEAS Slamdunk at 1400 hours.”

“Aeas?” He mumbled to himself, tapping it into his slate. Ardent Empyrean Alliance Ship. Slamdunk was a funny name for a ship, but from what he’d been able to learn it was Ardent tradition to let whoever captained a ship for the first time name it, explaining some of the oddities on their rosters. 

His slate also informed him that the time was 1547. It was lucky that Sylvas had no intention of saying goodbye to the other refugees before they carried on their journey to wherever the Empyrean Alliance meant to dump them, since it didn’t look like he would have had time anyway.

He had left Croesia with nothing but the clothes on his back, which had mostly been disintegrated by the forces of magic tearing through him, and the remains had been cut off by the medical staff. He’d received a standard issue civilian jumpsuit to cover his dignity, but that wasn’t really his, not anymore than the slate that he’d been handed was. They belonged to the Empyrean, and they were meant to make his presence on their ship slightly less annoying for their citizens. That was all. He had nothing to pack and nothing to carry, so he didn’t even bother to go back to his assigned quarters before heading to Port 3. Though he did cast one backwards glance at the windows lining the observation deck, hoping to catch some glimpse of the Slamdunk before he was inside it. There was no sign of it. No sign of anything except the glinting jump-gate out there in the cold of space. With a shrug, Sylvas set off.

Nobody was waiting for him at the airlock, just as nobody from the Ardent had been in medical. They all had too many important things to do to bother with some lowly new recruit. Sylvas had hoped that there might have been some other new recruits, so he might learn a little bit more from some better-informed citizens of the Empyrean about what he should expect from his training, but he was alone. At least, he was alone to begin with.

The door to the airlock slid open and the dwarf from medical walked in. The fact that she was walking was the first surprise. Last Sylvas had seen her, she’d had no legs. Now there were shining iron ones attached to her own standard issue jumpsuit. One of her arms was a metallic construct too. Some magic that Sylvas had never seen. Despite clearly being made out of inanimate metal, they moved like real limbs. Having spent most of her time on board in the sterility of the medical bay, there had being no opportunity for her to have found any dirt on board but she still gave off the impression that she should have been grubby. Oil or soot should have been slicked on her round face. She didn’t have the beard of all the other dwarves Sylvas had met, for obvious reasons, but she did have tattoos running along her broad jawline to give it the same sort of definition. A row of tribal spikes, extending up into a stripe that ran up her chin and divided her bottom lip. She caught sight of him and grinned. “Devil-drinker! Glad you made it!”

She stuck out her metal hand, and Sylvas took it without thinking. It was warm to the touch, just like a living hand would have been, but the way that she ground the bones in his hands together while shaking it felt distinctly mechanical.  “Nice to meet you proper! Kaya Runemaul.”

Managing to remember his manners and not whimper as she continued crushing his hand, he said, “Sylvas Vail. It’s a… pleasure.”

Releasing him from the death-grip and slapping her hands on her belly, Kaya grinned. “So how’d they get their hooks in you?”

“I beg your pardon?” Sylvas tried to shake some life back into his poor hand.

“The Empyrean Krahgs?” She was so jovial it was hard to take offence at anything she said, “How’d they rope you into fighting gods and monsters for them?”

“I met some of the Ardent on my world.” As pleasant as Kaya seemed intent on being, there was no reason for him to give everything about his life away. He had no idea how he was going to be treated as an outsider to the Empyrean Alliance, and he didn’t think that sharing the tale of how he’d summoned an Eidolon to destroy his world was going to make him any friends among the Ardent when they were tasked with stopping incursions like that from happening. “They talked me into it.”

“Press-ganged you? Did they?” She chuckled then wiggled her metal fingers at him. “They had to pay me an arm and a leg before I’d sign up and join the Empyrean. Two legs, actually.”

There went Sylvas hopes of getting some inside information about the civilization he’d just joined. “You weren’t a citizen before?” 

“Nah, I was free.” Her smile faded a little. “Then there was a tunnel collapse back on that floating rock I called home, I lost some bits, needed their docs to patch me up. This was the price of the spare parts.”

Sylvas had no idea what to say to that, but he tried to match her upbeat tone from before. “I wasn’t expecting to lose any important parts of my body until after training.”

For a moment she peered up at him, and he worried that he’d gone too far, but then she let out that same choke-sounding laugh from the medical bay and slapped him on the back hard enough to jar his whole body.  “Aye, we’ve got our whole lives to be dismembered by Eidolons, I just wanted to get a head-start.”

Sylvas had known in the abstract that there were other settlements in space near Croesia, out beyond the Empyrean, and that many of them were mining ventures like the dwarves seemed to gravitate towards, but it hadn’t really occurred to him that he’d ever meet somebody from one of them. Someone who had known all about magic and the wider universe the whole time, but still chose to stay out of it. “So were you a miner before your accident?”

“A miner? Is that all you think dwarves are good for?!” She bellowed, faking outrage for just a moment before chuckling at his startled expression. “Nah, I was a farmer. Mushrooms. Collected all the krahg in the colony, sprinkled it with spores, kept it wet, filled everyone’s bellies.”

Sylvas blinked, “I would have thought it would have been easier to just buy food from outlying colonies.”

“Maybe for folks in the Empyrean, but out there, you don’t get traders coming by on the regular. Doesn’t matter how much ore you dig, it ain’t worth nothing with nobody to sell it to.” She nodded sagely. “The only gold that matters in reality is grain.”

“Then I hope the Ardent pay you well with crops.” Sylvas said with a wry smile. 

The dwarf chuckled again, but before she could say any more the empty space outside the airlock turned white. For a moment, Sylvas thought that they’d jumped again, but it was the hull of the Ardent freighter pulling up alongside the ship.

Without warning, the airlock sprung open. All of the air in the chamber was sucked out, and both Sylvas and Kaya were dragged out with it. 

There was one awful moment when they were both outside, drifting in the freezing dark, wide eyes meeting then they slammed into the open airlock on the Ardent ship and it snapped shut behind them. They’d been carried the distance between the two craft in an instant in the sudden burst of air. Both of the new recruits scrambled up to their knees, heaving for breath after the momentary exposure to the vacuum of space, but they didn’t have long to think. The inner airlock sprung open, and a white-armored Ardent stepped in. He scowled down at the two of them as they struggled back to their feet. “Welcome to the Slamdunk, worms, let’s put you to work.”

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