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Chapter 2

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“Of all the Eidolon cults, few have a coherent internal philosophy. As though whoever were planting the seeds of these practices did not care enough to give the religion that they were founding all of its necessary components. The truth is much more efficient. By leaving gaps in the translations and texts, the originators of these outbreaks are helping their religion to take root by co-opting local practices and beliefs to fill in the blanks.”

—Starseeds: Corruption of The Great Filter, Gimbul Steelbeard

On his first day in Telas Mirmir, Sylvas learned that he had not been lying. 

The journey had taken the latter half of the day and all through the night, but whatever High Lord’s carriage he had been loaded into entirely alone did not slow or stop to rest its horses, and he had been rocked into uncertain sleep sometime in the early hours.

He was the only one of all the children in the orphanage that the Heralds took, as the Lady had told him he would be. What she had not told him was that he was far from the only child in all the world that they had collected.

Telas Mirmir rose smooth and perfect against the backdrop of mountains that marked the line of division between the domain of Telas Norn and the Virtuous City of Telas Skuld. Forest had once climbed the foot of the mountains and blanketed this whole swathe of land, but all had been sacrificed to the pyre of progress and now all that remained was dead earth as far as the eye could see, stumps that could not be plucked from the soil had been burned away, peppering the land with sear marks.

But stranger than the blighted land, the looming tower and the dark robed figures flitting around were the other children. Dozens of them, plucked not from orphanages and misery, but from happy families that had given them up freely to the cause.

A girl only a year older than Sylvas broke away from the group as he arrived, and she gave him the same appraising look as the others in the orphanage once had, before he’d proven he was willing to kick and bite if someone held him down. She smiled at him and said, “Welcome.”

He had been taught that politeness was important. “Good day to you, miss.”

She smiled at that. “You’re from Telas Norn?”

So far as Sylvas had known, he had no accent, but hearing her speak, the light way her voice lilted towards the end of each sentence, he realized that he did, he’d just never heard any other. “I’m afraid I don’t know where you’re from.”

“Telas Abrak, all the way across on the other coast. Since you’re local, I’ll be relying on you to serve as my tour guide.” She was smiling, but there was still a coldness to her expression, just like with the High Lady who had adopted him the day before. This was all practiced politeness that he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up with.

Before he could start tripping over his words, a silence fell over the whole garden that surrounded the base of the tower. Only the tinkling of the fountain could still be heard for a moment, before an older man shrouded beneath the cowl of the black and red robes of the Heralds stepped out and began to speak. He was not shouting, but his voice carried to all the gathered children all the same. “Greetings to you, chosen ones.” If they had been silent before, now a pin could have been heard dropping to the gravel path. “Each of you has been carefully selected for your natural talents, to carry on the ancient art of the Heralds of the Hollow Heart: To learn our ways. To master our powers. To change the world.”

It drew Sylvas up short. None of the children around him looked in the least bit suspicious or confused. They looked like they believed everything that was being told to them. Sylvas filed that away for later. Either they knew something he didn’t or they were gullible. Either was vital to know if he was going to be dealing with them going forward.

“Of all the children in Croesia, you are the ones most naturally gifted in the art of magic, but without training and discipline your potential will be wasted.” Sylvas made his way slowly forward into the press of preteens, the girl from Telas Abrak dogging his heels all the way. Pushing forward to be closer, to be sure he did not miss a word. “Luck is all that you have had so far. A happy accident of birth that made you capable of greatness. Squander that, and you shall progress no further. Capitalize upon it, and you shall become the next generation of Grand Masters of the Heralds of the Hollow Heart. Capitalize upon it, and you shall become gods amongst men.”

There was excitement showing on many of the faces around him. Ambition burning bright behind the eyes of the children who were now his competitors. Sylvas didn’t believe that he had that same fire. That same desire to rule over others. All that he wanted was a better life, away from the misery of the orphanage and the obscurity he would fall into afterwards. I’m going to succeed here, he thought, not because I want to be better than the others, but because I can never afford to be worse. He could not let them cast him out and send him back, he had an opportunity here to change his life, and he had no intention of letting it go.

“Do you suppose there will be magic potions and wands?” The girl from Telas Abrak needled him. “Do you think we shall be summoning up dragons and demons?”

He ignored her entirely, instead trying to press forwards once again, when he saw the old man who’d been lecturing them sink down onto his knees. While they stood upon the gravel paths of the garden, the old man was upon the solid flagstones set around the fountain, and as he got closer, Sylvas could see that there were markings all around him. A solid circle line of chalk surrounding him, but symbols too. Writing in some language he’d never seen before.

Sylvas startled a little at the press of the girl from Abrak against his side, she leaned in close to whisper in his ear as they watched. “They did this little demonstration for my parents, to convince them to part with a daughter coming up on marrying age. The money helped too, I’m sure, and the promises of glory, but this is quite the little trick.”

A low hum filled the air, barely perceptible over the usual sounds of flowing water and chittering bugs. “It’s a magic circle, you see. A binding to stop mana from flowing away when the mage draws it in. Those sigils seal it, make it so it can’t escape. And the mage, he draws mana towards him, and because it can’t escape after, it gets denser and denser until…”

There was a flash of light. The old man vanished in a pillar of pure white that lasted barely a moment, then he was returned, and he rose to his feet, somewhat unsteadily. “Each of you shall learn to draw upon the power of the invisible world as I have demonstrated. Then you can begin your training proper.”

The light. There must have been some rational explanation for it. Some reason that they’d want to trick all of their new recruits into believing that magic was real, that there was some hidden power that they all could access. Sylvas mind raced. As the crowd began to break apart, clear nasal voices rose from behind them, the woman who had fetched Sylvas here, standing by the gateway into the gardens, explaining, “As all are now present, we shall take a day for you to accustom yourselves to your new environs. Tomorrow, we begin to test you.”

“Come on then local guide, show me around the place.” The girl was teasing him, he realized. Though he wasn’t sure what he’d done to warrant her special attention. As the crowd of other children dispersed, some who knew one another gathering in cliques, others trying to make tentative friendships, Sylvas moved by them all to the magic circle. He sank down to his haunches and studied it. Not the circle itself, which was easy enough to work out how to draw, but the sigils around it. They bore no resemblance to any language he had ever encountered. Sylvas brow furrowed. Telas Norn is a port city with travelers from around Croesia passing through. I should know the look of it at least.

“Come on.” Her voice was pitched up into a whine, but Sylvas had been subjected to far worse. “I don’t have all day.”

He cast her a backwards glance before returning to studying the sigils. “Miss, you have been here longer than me. I’ve no idea where anything is.”

She huffed. “Well, you aren’t much of a guide then, are you?”

Shifting down onto his knees, Sylvas leaned over the circle, sniffing the air for any hint of alchemy. The tell-tale sharp scent of ozone if lightning had struck. There was nothing. Whatever had produced the light was gone now, in a flash. Extending a hand over the circle, he tried to feel for anything unusual, but there was no change whatsoever between the inside and out. 

“What would be the point of tricking us now?” Sylvas asked himself. “They’ve already got us.”

The girl had joined him on her haunches. The fancy lace frippery of her dress bunched up around her knees as she almost bumped heads with him as they both examined the circle. “I imagine that if they wanted us easier to manipulate, tricking us into thinking they have magic powers might do the trick.”

He didn’t intend to speak with her, but she was doing a very helpful job in voicing what he was thinking to himself. “But there are so many easier ways to do that without setting yourself up to prove the impossible.”

“So magic is real, and we’re really here to learn it.” She yawned as she said it, covering her mouth delicately.

“Why are you talking to me?” Sylvas finally just gave in and asked.

She gave a little shrug that made him notice her shoulders were exposed in her dress. “Because you’re different from the others.”

He felt a brief swell of pride. Even here among all these other chosen ones, he had stood out as unique and important. But then he took a moment to glance around at the rest of the students and the reason that he had drawn her attention became apparent. “I’m different because…”

“Because you have no shoes.”

It was his turn to sigh. “Where I’m from, we don’t wear them.”

“I’ve been to Telas Norn before, you know.” She scoffed. “I know that they have shoes there…”

Sylvas was doing his best not to show any annoyance. It would have been impolite, and if there was anything he dreaded, it was being impolite. “Then I suppose that I must be from somewhere else.”

“Oh, a mystery are you?” She giggled. “I do so love a mystery.”

They both drew themselves back up to standing, and stared for a moment, before he stuck out his hand. “Sylvas Vail.”

She looked genuinely perplexed. “I beg your pardon?”

“My name. So that you don’t have the whole puzzle to solve without any clues.” He managed to smile.

“And you may call me… Lady Elmira Ka- ” She cut herself short. “No, I shan’t make it too easy for you. Mira. You can call me Mira.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Mira.”

Her smile seemed markedly more genuine this time around. “And you Sylvas Vail.”

The rest of their free time was spent examining the circle, exploring the lower sections of the tower that they’d been granted access to and carefully avoiding the company of the other students, many of which had already started bragging about how they were going to be the best mages the world had ever seen. On later reflection, Sylvas would realize that he should have taken the rest when he had the opportunity. For the next eight years, there was not a single day that passed when he didn’t strive and suffer. The Way of the Hollow Heart was not for the faint of heart.

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