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Chapter 18


“Teleportation is a facet of spatial magic, typically empowered by the use of an ample supply of Etherium. The greater the distance travelled, the greater the mana expenditure. There can be no denying its utility, but in practical terms the expenditure is typically too great to justify its use outside of fringe cases.”

—Through the Gates of Reality: Spatial Magic and You, Jakrus’Kal

Morning was a state of mind on a spaceship. There was no sun rise, no planet for it to rise over, but everyone seemed to mutually agree that it was time to get up.

Already aching before they even began, both of the new recruits were on their feet, standing at attention before Sir stalked in at 0600 precisely. He looked them up and down without comment, and Sylvas braced himself for the worst. If they were going to be running again, he didn’t think he’d make it half as far as he had yesterday. Exercise like that might have made him stronger in the long run, but in the short term it left him a wreck.

“Upon arrival at Strife you will be placed in classes to advance you through the various circles of magic until you are powerful enough to stand a chance on the battlefield. It is an academic setting, but you will be facing combat training from day one. We are not training you to be mages, we are forging you into weapons against the deadliest threat in the known universe. You will have the freedom,” He snarled the world as if it tasted bad in his mouth, “To advance according to your own designs, but you will receive advice directly from your superiors on what choices will make you the most useful to the Ardent. We cannot force you to take that advice, as that would be a violation of your rights and bodily autonomy, but if you make the incorrect decisions and make yourselves unviable for combat, then you can expect little support moving forward.”

Sir cast a series of spells, quick and casual in a way that made Sylvas envious. He had no idea how many circles this mage possessed, but judging by how casually he spent his mana, it went well beyond his own one. One of the spells conjured that same glowing eye to observe them in their superior’s absence, but the others spawned in a series of glowing circular planes, about the size of dinner plates, which began drifting around in an orbit above their caster where he stood in the middle of the room. He beckoned the recruits forward, then cast a final spell that encircled them all, along with the vast majority of the room. “Your current advancement has been reviewed, and your training will reflect your personal strengths and weaknesses. Lucky for you, you’ve both developed in opposing directions, so we can kill two birds with one stone with each exercise.”

Kaya leaned towards Sylvas and whispered so loud he nearly jumped away from her. “Why are we killing birds?”

Sir just rolled his eyes. “Cat heaven is mouse hell, Runemaul.”

“What’s a cat?” She asked next. Though Sylvas had enough sense not to answer her while their superior was still glowering.

“Above you are targets, they will be color coded. Runemaul, red. Vail, Blue. If you strike a target of the opposing color, you fail. If you fail to strike all of your targets within the allotted time, you fail. If you somehow manage to do damage to the hull by missing with a spell that is potent enough to penetrate the circle I have placed around you…”

“We fail.” Kaya replied in a singsong tone.

“No,” It was hard to smile without lips, but the lizardman managed a nasty grin all the same. “If you damage the ship, we leave you in here to get sucked out into the vacuum. So don’t try to show off, Vail.”

Sylvas opened his mouth to object to being singled out, but decided to take it as a compliment to his abilities that they thought he might have been strong enough to actually do that kind of damage when his arcane arrows hadn’t even been able to scratch the Eidolons.

“Test starts when the targets take on their colors, ends when they disappear.” He stalked to the edge of the circle that enclosed them, and parted it with a whispered spell for just long enough to step out. “And try not to hit each other, don’t think Runemaul has enough spare parts left.”

She muttered something untranslatable under her breath.

Then, as abruptly as the running had started yesterday, the targets suddenly sprung to life. Switching to their red and blue colors and moving faster, deliberately weaving back and forth so that a red target might be shielded by a blue at any moment.

“Back to back?” Sylvas suggested, and Kaya moved around without questioning it.

Sylvas hadn’t actually used any magic since leaving home. He could still feel the mana inside him, still feel it flowing out to fill the channels in his flesh and the hollow spaces of his mind, but actually casting hadn’t been necessary until now. He was surprised to see his usually steady hands shake a little. He supposed it made sense. The last time he’d been casting, the wild mana unleashed had ravaged him and left him for dead. Kaya barked out a spell behind him and he heard a sound like a gong being struck. One of her targets had been hit. She was going to beat him again if he didn’t start casting. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and let Clearmind do its job. When he opened his eyes again, all the feelings that he didn’t want to deal with were gone. All that was in front of him was the task. One he was well-equipped to handle.

An arcane arrow leapt from his palm to strike the first of the blue targets as it spun by. He wasn’t used to moving targets, so he only barely clipped its edge, but the gong sounded and the plate vanished. A smile began to grow on his face as he cast again, and again.

One by one, the blue targets began to deplete. He aimed just a little ahead of them and was gratified to hit each and every time. There was a dull thumping sound each time one of Kaya’s shots missed and hit the outer circle, though he’d gladly admit that there were only two or three of those thumps throughout the whole exercise. Her marksmanship seemed to be on par with his own, she just seemed to take a little longer with each cast, giving the targets time to spin away.

Yesterday he had rushed ahead of her in the beginning and slowed as his reserves of energy were depleted but now it was the opposite. He blasted rapidly through his targets, only slowing as they were increasingly rare among the sea of red blurring past his eyes. Each cast seemed to take her longer and longer, at least in comparison to the rapid rate that he had churned out his spells. His mana reserves were down almost halfway, but from the fizzling and sparking sounds when she attempted to cast her spells, it sounded like her mana was guttering out. The long gaps between spells were her slipping into brief bouts of distracted meditation, trying to draw in more mana until she had the power to fire again. Sylvas hadn’t realized it yesterday, but while his embodiment might have been useless when it came to physical activity, more like a long-term injury that would never fully heal, it gave him a massive advantage when it came to actual spellcasting. Without the channels for mana to flow through, casting must have been much more difficult, and even with a reserve of mana as dense as the one he’d cultivated, a lot of it probably would have gone to waste with every single cast, just trying to force it out past the limits of his body.

By the time that he’d hit the last of his targets, her casting had stopped entirely, and when he turned to face her, she was glassy-eyed and pale. Sweat beading all over her face. She’d pushed too far. Tried to use mana that she didn’t have. Just as he’d been past his limit yesterday, she was past her limit now. Sylvas glanced up to the glowing eye above them. Sir was watching. He had watched her push herself past the limits of what she could do, and he was still going to come in here and call her a failure because of the red targets still swooping around them. It was time to decide whether he wanted to be the kind of soldier that the Ardent wanted him to be. 

He laid a hand flat in the middle of Kaya’s back and he pushed the mana out of his core and into hers. It flowed readily through the channels in his body to the palm of his hand, following the course that every one of his arcane arrows had gone, then it dispersed out into her body. Some of it was lost, most of it, probably, but some managed to drive out of him with enough force to hit her core and replenish it. He drained himself down until he was almost as empty as she had been, then he slumped to the floor to meditate.

With the new rush of power he’d granted her, Kaya was able to start casting again, to start thinking again. She threw him a grateful look just before he closed his eyes and started reaching out for fresh mana. The sound of gongs began anew.

By the time that he had replenished enough of his mana that he no longer felt shaky, the test was over. Of the thirty targets each of them had been assigned Sylvas had downed all thirty, and Kaya twenty, with the last five having come in rapid succession near the end after he’d topped off her reserves. Sir had returned by the time that Sylvas opened his eyes, and while he barked out that Kaya had failed the test, there was something in his expression that told Sylvas that she’d won his respect all the same.

He pressed on with their instruction. “On Strife, there are no easy targets. Anything you try to hit will try to hit you back. Remember that.”

They nodded in acknowledgement, which seemed to satisfy their instructor for now. “Break to replenish your mana, next test is at 0800.”

He stalked back out of the room to whatever duties kept him so preoccupied, and Sylvas was relieved to see that the glowing eye had faded along with the circle protect the ship from any misfires. He turned to Kaya and then let out a strangled grunting noise as she seized him around the waist and hoisted him off his feet. For a moment, he thought that he was under attack, then realized she was hugging him. “Boy, I don’t know what you did, but you did it.”

“It was just… some extra mana.” He managed to huff out.

“Nobody’s done for me like that before, boy.” She spun on the spot with his feet dangling. “Not blood, not friend, nobody. I was drained dry. Pushed like the lizard told us and pushed too far. I’d have dropped dead if you hadn’t done whatever you did.”

Sylvas was genuinely struggling to breathe. “You… did the same… for me… yesterday.”

“Well, you’re kin now.” She said with a firmness that shocked him almost as much as the squeeze driving the air out his lungs.. “Sylvas Runemaul, just say the word, you’re in my clan.”

“It was just… a little mana.” He barely whispered before she finally noticed that she was crushing the life out of him and dropped him back to the deck.

“Saved my life, boy. And I won’t soon forget it.” She cut him off before he could make any more protests. “Now, let’s get to meditating before he’s back with some more misery for us.”

After his brief spin through the air and the disorientation of the bear hug, Sylvas was more than ready to sink down to sitting and fall into his usual meditation routine. Visualizing all the stars outside of the ship and imagining them drawing in closer to him with every inhalation. The mana came easily to begin with. It was only ever towards the end of meditation that he had to work to force more inside his circle. To cram it in dense as it could get. He had practiced meditation all his life, surrounded by fellow students of the arcane and all of the outbursts that they had as they failed to achieve what he could do so much more easily. What he had never had to do was listen to all of the grunts and grumblings that Kaya made as she tried to settle herself. Her snoring seemed positively peaceful in comparison to the noises coming out of her now. The clearing of the throat that never seemed to quite catch whatever was troubling her. The huffing and puffing as she tried to go through a breathing technique. The littler grunts that she made each time she shifted her position beside him. If he hadn’t had Clearmind to block out the distractions, it was entirely possible that he might have attempted to murder her.

He did such a good job of blocking out distractions as he reached the end of the cycle and started having to force mana inside his circle that he didn’t even notice when their commanding officer stalked back into the room. He distantly heard Kaya’s movement as she scrambled to her feet, and attention, but he set it aside as just another of her endless shifts in position. His eyes only snapped open when the lizardman was standing over him, practically growling, “Rise and shine, recruit.”

Springing up after sitting perfectly still for so long was less easy than Kaya had made it sound, and his attempt at standing to attention was probably contemptable by the standards of the Ardent, but there was no complaint from the lizardman. “You’ve both gotten real lucky today.”

Neither of them felt particularly lucky, but they didn’t dare to interrupt.

“We arrive at the jump to Strife in four hours. Command have informed me that they want you rested up before your boots hit the ground, so you’re on slate duties until then.” His sneer was barely under control. “The Slamdunk’s library is open to you for the remainder of the trip, don’t waste the opportunity.”

And just like that, Sylvas day of torment turned into a dream come true.

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