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Chapter 17

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“Relic worlds are an oddity in the Empyrean and beyond. Places that were destroyed in antiquity, almost always by Eidolons, but that inexplicably retain a living world-soul. It is from them that we learned much of what we now know of how and why Eidolon incursions occur, but they also stand as chilling testaments to what happens when their invasions go unhalted.”

—Ardent Recruitment Brochure

The Ardent who had met them coming onto the ship was possibly the least pleasant person that Sylvas had encountered since leaving home. A Najash lizardman, who presumably had a name but insisted on being referred to only as ‘Sir.’

Sir gave them an extremely brief tour of the ship as they jogged to keep up. The bridge, the engine room and the artillery decks were all off limits, as were the crew quarters. There was a single converted cargo bay set aside for them, with a bunk-bed hastily thrown against a wall beside a folded-out table and a device behind a screened-off corner that landed somewhere between toilet and bucket. “This is your world from here until Strife. You eat here, you sleep here, you train here. I see you anywhere else on the ship, I kick your ass back here.”

He cast a spell then, similar to the scrying one that all the Ardent seemed to use, but different too. It left a glowing eye hovering in the air above where Sir had been. “When I give you an order, I am speaking with the voice of God. If you have a question about any of my orders, no you don’t.”

With a flick of the wrist he conjured a slate and glanced at it. “Rations will be delivered at 1900, lights out a 2200. Early bed-time for you babies, because I’m going to work you to the bone tomorrow. Training starts at 0600. Until 1900, you run.”

Sylvas and Kaya looked at each other. “Run?”

“Did you just question the voice of God, recruit?”

“No sir.” Sylvas snapped back.

“You will run circuits of this bay until 1900 hours. You will be observed. Failure to make enough circuits will result in rations being withheld until you have reached the goals designated for you.”

They both knew better than to ask what the goal actually was. Questioning authority, even with reasonable questions, was not allowed, apparently.

Sir strode off towards the door that they had come in by, barking over his shoulder, “Start running, worms.”

Sylvas ran. Kaya stared after him for a moment, obviously not used to getting bossed around, but she caught on quick enough, and started running too, following the route that Sylvas did. Along the length of the sealed bay doors, back towards the wall with the doors, past the doors, then back out towards the bunks again.

The first circuit was fine. Sylvas wasn’t running as fast as he could, recognizing that four hours of sprinting was going to be impossible, but with his longer legs, he was still easily outpacing Kaya. On the second circuit she seemed to find her rhythm, and while he had almost managed to lap her that first time, they ended up running side by side from that point forward.

The bed-rest and easy living of being on the Empyrean ship for the past week caught up to Sylvas fast. His legs started to feel rubbery after only fifteen minutes of going around and around, while Kaya seemed to have just found her stride. She was red in the face from her efforts, but hardly struggling. Meanwhile Sylvas could barely manage to pant out, “How?”

“New legs took some getting used to is all.” She grinned.

She began to draw ahead of him then. Not because of any sudden burst of speed, but because while he was mortal and tiring, she apparently had a boundless font of energy to draw on. She drew too far ahead for him to even talk to her, not that he had any breath left to talk. And for the half-hour that followed, she slowly but unstoppably closed the distance of that first lap he had gained on her until they were side by side again. “Come on boy, you can do it. One foot in front of the other.”

He barely had the energy to lift a hand and make an obscene gesture at her. At least, he hoped it was obscene to dwarves the same way it had been on his home planet. Judging by her laughter, it had translated well enough for the meaning to be understood.

She started pulling ahead of him again, and all that Sylvas could do was watch helplessly. He didn’t have the strength left to try and match her speed. His legs felt like molten lead, and his lungs felt like they were burning too. Willpower was the only thing keeping him moving. Willpower and the fear of letting his new masters down and being kicked out of the program before it had even begun.

“Guess you didn’t do a lot of heavy lifting wherever you sprouted from?” Kaya asked as she caught up to him once again.

He managed to shake his head, but actual words were beyond him.

Meanwhile she was chuckling, “Whatever Embodiment you’ve got, it sucks the krahg right out of the krahgnahar.”

He felt like he should have made some attempt to defend the mana reinforcement that had made him a mage, but in this particular situation, it was hard to disagree with her. 

“Don’t feel too bad for eating my dust boy, the new legs run on magic, and the rest of me has the Steelflesh, ain’t many book-readers who could keep up with me.” She called back over her shoulder with a chortle. She was too jovial to hate, but Sylvas made a good attempt at it anyway, as she pulled ahead of him once more.

The next time that she came around, Sylvas exhaustion gave way to frustration. He’d been stuck with this useless Embodiment, he hadn’t chosen it. If he could have made himself into some unstoppable machine like Kaya, then of course he would have. She could go on running forever without even breaking a sweat, and here he was feeling like he’d gone three rounds with a Leviathan Harrower. The Clearmind Paradigm meant that he didn’t have to feel these things, didn’t have to endure the dark mood that was taking over him, but he could still choose to indulge in his anger if he wanted to, and it helped. Being angry gave him the energy to keep on pushing, to keep on going. Ignoring the complaints of his body as he kept his eyes fixed on the dwarf running ahead of him.

Kaya went on pulling ahead of him, but now that he’d tapped into that reserve of frustration, he could keep on going. Keep on pushing. Long past the point that his legs should have given out. His breath came out raspy and rough, like his parents had in their final moments before the Flux took them, but he didn’t stop. He wasn’t going to show the Ardent that they’d been wrong to recruit him. He was going to prove that he was the best, even if he didn’t have all the advantages that someone like Kaya had.

He could hear her, distantly, over the sound of his own thumping footsteps and his heart thumping in his ears. He could hear her catching up on him again.

Just like when he’d been bleeding to death on the tower-top, the edges of his vision began to darken. At least an hour had passed, maybe two, he’d lost count of how many times they’d gone around and around this miserable little room. He felt like he knew every inch of it like the back of his hand.

The floor was covered in a massive sheet of some sort of material that was neither stone, wood or metal. It had a little bit of spring in it like wood, but it seemed to be one vast solid piece rather than boards. Sylvas couldn’t say how long had passed when he became more intimately aware of the floor. Able to study it from up close. The pain of the fall wouldn’t show up until later, even though he’d gone face first into the ground.

Kaya was there at his side, almost immediately, hooking her hands under his armpits and hauling him back up to standing. Their difference in heights made it awkward, but she was strong enough that it didn’t matter so much. “Time for a nice sit down, I think.”

Sylvas pushed away from her, staggering a few steps before he could start jogging again, much slower than he had been, but still moving.

“Are you out of your mind, boy?” She called after him, shaking her head.

Hitting the floor had knocked the wind out of Sylvas, but the delay before Kaya could get to him and get him back on his feet had given him a tiny window for recovery. He jogged on, calling back. “Can’t stop.”

“You can, you know.” She put on a turn of speed to catch up to him, then slowed her pace until they were running side by side. “These Ardent krahgs would never ask you to keep going like this.”

“Incorrect, Recruit Runemaul.” Sir’s voice cut through the sweaty air. “The expectation is that you will fulfill your mission, no matter what it is, no matter what discomfort it might cause you.”

Sylvas cast a bleary stare around the room, looking for the lizardman, but his voice seemed to be echoing out from the hovering eye sigil.

“However, it is apparent that Recruit Vail is at his physical limit, so we will put this stress test to an end.”

“No.” Sylvas managed to groan. “I can still…”

“Did you just question the voice of God, Vail?” Sir’s voice echoed and boomed in the enclosed space of their training bay.

Disgust settled in Sylvas’ stomach. “No, sir.”

“Rations will be dispensed at 1900, as stated. Until then, both of you are done.”

Kaya hooked an arm around Sylvas waist to stop his legs giving out and started to lead him over towards the bunks, only for the door of the room to abruptly slide open, and their scaly skinned overlord to come strolling in with a contemptuous flick of his tail. “Vail, you have received a passing grade for the day. Runemaul, you have not.”

Kaya’s jaw clenched. “I’m good to run some more boss.”

“It is a matter of attitude, recruit.” Sir said that last word like it was a slur. “Vail was willing to push past the limits of his body to fulfill his mission. You couldn’t even stay focused on yours.”

She let Sylvas go, and he staggered with the sudden lack of support. Kaya squared her shoulders and barked at her commanding officer. “What’s that mean? I ran round like there was a krahg-ing Eidolon on my heels?!”

Sir’s tail lashed from side to side in annoyance. “Your task was not to assist Vail. It was to run. In battle, your empathy could cost us victory. Every one of the Ardent stands for themselves, or they fall.”

He stalked out of the room after that without another word, leaving the two of them to their wounded pride.

Sylvas had made it as far as the bunk-beds, but his legs were not complying as he tried to climb the ladder. Kaya pushed him down onto the bottom bunk with a scoff. “Ever comes a night you’re not more tired than me, you can climb up.”

She scrambled up the ladder and out of sight, and Sylvas lay there groaning for almost a whole minute before his brain caught up to everything that had happened. “Kaya?”

“What?”

The glowing eye hovering over the room had faded when the lizardman had come in, but Sylvas didn’t know if they were still listening in on everything they said. If they were, then he supposed he was about to lose whatever faith the Ardent had put in him. “If you fall… I’m helping you up.”

For a moment she was silent, then she grumbled, “Cheers.”

The rations might have been pitiful by the standards of the Empyrean Alliance, but they tasted heavenly to Sylvas after a lifetime of gruel. He didn’t know if there was some enchantment on the little hard sticks that they’d been handed that made them blossom into flavors in his mouth, and he didn’t care.

Kaya came down and they sat side by side on his bunk to eat in companionable silence. It was still many hours until lights out, but after the food was done, they both returned to their bunks.

For a long moment he lay there in silence, the lights of the room still blazing, his body aching with the day’s efforts, the he gave up on conversation and closed his eyes. “Goodnight Kaya.”

“Sleep tight.” She chuckled back from above him. Kaya was already snoring by the time that the lights went out, loud as waterfall and with almost as much drool spilling out. 

Sleep did not come so easily for Sylvas, who was now giving serious consideration to the decision that he’d made. Wondering if he hadn’t just traded in one set of bad masters for another. The Ardent fought the Eidolons, and the Eidolons had killed his world, that had seemed reason enough to join up. But he wasn’t sure if he wanted to become the kind of person that the lizardman wanted him to be, pushing himself to the point of destruction and letting friends and allies drop around him without a second thought. He might have spent his whole life being conditioned and trained to bring about the end of the world without questioning orders, but even he wasn’t sure if he was cold enough to give the Ardent what they wanted.

Sleep came and stole him away some time in the dark of night. That was the one good thing about being so exhausted, the completeness of it. Tonight, for the first time since leaving, he hoped that he would not see Croesia burn when he closed his eyes. He was not so lucky.

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