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Chapter 3

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“A magic circle is, at its core, about containment. Mana can enter the circle, but it cannot leave. It is for this reason that circles are used in the cultivation of a core, and it is for this reason that the gradation of a mage’s overall power is typically measured in circles. Once the first circle has been formed within the mage, they can maintain a mana core without external assistance, and from that point they may technically be as competent in the casting of any spell as those of a higher circle, but rarely can stability be maintained when attempting to contain the amounts of mana required for higher magic.”

—A Child’s Book of Spells, Immaltan Vitorius

On the next day, Sylvas Vail began to study magic.

The inside of the great tower of Telas Mirmir was richly decorated in dark wood inlaid with mother of pearl, the kind of opulence that the other students were accustomed to, but that Sylvas had never seen in his entire life. They spent the mornings in the spacious chamber that they were informed was the library, but which seemed to be exceptionally light on books, given just how many of them there were. Not that they were given free reign to go and read as they saw fit anyway. Each of them was handed a scroll upon entry into the room, and shuffled off to a desk to begin studying it.

Mira began complaining within the first minute. “Remind me why we need to memorize these sigils?”

Speaking had not been forbidden, as such, but there were Heralds watching over the students with some intensity, and there could be no question that they were being judged based on their conduct. He did not want to give the impression that he was going to be a disruptive element. Even if he still had his doubts about the whole thing. Sylvas sighed, “So that we can draw a magic circle to contain mana.”

“Yes, but why do we need to memorize them.” She waved her scroll at him. “We have them right here on paper. Couldn’t we just carry that with us?”

They could have, probably, but I suspect that this, like so many things, is actually a test on the part of my new guardians. To see who could memorize the sigils and recreate them the quickest. To see who was committed enough to memorize them. “I suspect that we’ll have more important things to carry cheat-notes for.”

“Magic spells?” There was a mocking tone in Mira’s voice, even though she had come to the same conclusion as Sylvas about the validity of the Herald’s claims.

Sylvas had begun tracing the lines of the sigils with his fingertip, getting used to making the shapes. “Magic spells.”

The first practical magic that they would undertake arrived in the afternoon. At lunch they were taken back down to the ground floor of the tower where a great hall was laid out with tables and plates. There was no trickery or magic afoot down here, just the diligent work of a whole village’s worth of cooks, kitchen boys and miscellaneous servants. Sylvas thanked each of them profusely when they brought him his lunch, drawing the disdain of all the surrounding students. Out of pure spite, Mira began doing the same, and soon everyone was treating the servants like they were actual people, just to prove themselves morally superior.

Soon after they were herded right back up to near the top of the tower, to where magic circles had already been chalked upon the flagstones. Each of them was seated cross-legged inside of their own one, and first tasked with examining the markings that surrounded them for any errors.

This might have been the test of the morning’s study, so Sylvas turned his full attention to it. So far as he could recall, every symbol arranged around the circle was correct and matched what had been on his scroll, but of course, he did not have the scroll to hand to double check it. He closed his eyes for a moment to concentrate, to bring it back in front of his mind’s eye. Where was the error?

“Do you see it?” He asked Mira, without really thinking about it. She had already settled down to meditate.

She opened one lazy eye. “See what?”

“The mistake?” He was trying not to be snappy, but he was getting increasingly annoyed at his own failure.

She peered over at his circle. “There’s a mistake?”

“I don’t know,” He grumbled, dropping back down to his knees to look closer at one sigil that could possibly have been ambiguous, or that he had simply remembered incorrectly. “I can’t see one.”

She opened both eyes only long enough to roll them, then went back to her meditation. “Then there isn’t one.”

“You read the scroll the same as me! If the circle isn’t drawn properly, then this isn’t going to work.” He was getting increasingly exasperated.

“Might not work anyway.” 

And there was the unfortunate truth that all of his fussing and fretting had been trying to avoid. If the circle was right, and he sat down and tried, and he failed to do the impossible then he would be cast out. He had no doubt about it. What he did have plenty of doubts about were everything else. If magic was real. If the circle was right. If he’d be able to feel the mana that was supposedly trapped inside. This wasn’t something he could prepare for, something he could study up on. He would either be a mage, or not, and no amount of delaying would change that outcome.

He stepped over the chalk into the circle and he felt nothing. “Something’s wrong.”

Once more, Mira begrudgingly opened an eye. “How would you know? You’ve never done this before.”

He leaned as close as he dared without going over the line of the circle to whisper, “I don’t feel anything.”

“Neither do I.” She shrugged.

Sylvas started peering around at the sigils again. “So there’s something wrong with the circles?”

“I don’t know.” She paused, then added. “Neither do you.”

They spent the rest of the afternoon in silent contemplation of the absolutely nothing that they were experiencing. Sylvas frustration gradually mounting.

What am I doing wrong? He didn’t ask Mira, who he suspected had fallen asleep in an upright position judging by the gentle snoring sounds. I’m here, I’m trying to feel the mana. What am I missing?

And then the absence of the thing became a thing in itself. It was in the space between the things that he could see and feel, the empty space where none of his senses touched. His lips moved, sound escaping soft enough that only he could hear himself whisper. “I can do this.”

Outside of his body, he knew that the mana existed but he couldn’t sense it. When it drifted through him, it was like senses that he’d never known he had were coming alive.

“I can do this.” He whispered it out louder as the dawning realization took over him. Magic was real, it had been, all along, he just hadn’t been looking for it.

A solid half of the students felt nothing that day or the next, only finally coming to recognize the mana flowing through them long after Sylvas and the other leaders of the pack had moved on to the next step in their journey.

“How are you doing it?” 

Mira’s question took him by surprise, and it wasn’t exactly easy for him to answer.

“I just… do it?  I’m not sure I can put it in words.”

She practically hissed. “Well everybody else is trying to put it in words, you can at least try.”

That caught his attention at least. His brows drew down. “I haven’t seen you talking to anyone else.”

“That’s because we’re gossiping about you behind your back.” She slumped her shoulders. “Try to keep up.”

The first minor revelation that he’d found had guided him on his way, he could at least give her that. “You can’t force it.”

“Willpower is the heart of mana control.” She did her best reedy impression of the Herald who had given them today’s lecture before switching back to her own voice. “Isn’t the whole thing about forcing it?”

“You’ve got to… you can feel mana now, right?”

Her expression became entirely devoid of emotion. “No I’ve been lying to everyone, fully expecting that you will teach me how to draw mana in our evening chats so that my deception is never uncovered.”

“Oh.”

She leaned over and whacked him in the arm with the back of her hand, too softly for him to really feel it through the thick fabric of the new clothes he’d found hidden in a wardrobe in his cell. Cut perfectly to his size. “I can feel it now…” Mira tutted. “You really thought that I’d…”

It was his turn to shrug. “Seems in character.”

“Let’s just work off the assumption that I am being entirely honest with you and proceed from there.” She rolled her eyes.

“That feels like a dangerous assumption.”

Her tone was no longer playful. “Sylvas…”

“You have to be aware of the mana, leave yourself open to it, and call it into the circle, but you can’t try to grab hold of it once it is there.” He did his best to translate all that he’d found in the ancient texts to guide him into little snippets for her to easily digest. “You have to let it come to you.”

“Oh good, more doing nothing.”

The other students had lived good, comfortable lives as the nobles of Croseia did. They had not spent all their lives wanting. So when the mana slipped through their fingers, they lost their concentration, grumbled, complained, and stormed away. They felt like they were entitled to the mana. To magic. To all of it. Only Sylvas felt like he had to earn it. Only he worked night and day to earn it.

“It isn’t doing nothing. It is wanting the mana to come to you so badly that it does.”

She let out a little contemptuous snort. It suited her upturned nose. “Shall I wish on a falling star while I’m at it?”

He was trying to concentrate on the exercise himself. To draw in power and let it rest within him. This split in concentration made him a little snappy. “Perhaps you could wish to be a little less stubborn so that when you ask a friend for help you feel inclined to listen.”

“Are we friends now?” She answered him coldly. “I don’t recall extending a formal invitation.”

There it was, the inevitable. Friendships aren’t for people like me. Unlovable children banished to orphanages because nobody would take them in. “I shouldn’t have presumed.”

“Oh stop being so wet.” She blew the strand of hair that had escaped her high ponytail off her face. “Of course we’re friends. If we weren’t friends, I wouldn’t be talking about you behind your back. I’d be doing it to your face.”

He felt his stomach turn all over again. All attempts at maintaining focus on the mana now gone in a moment of conversation. It had felt too like being caught in a lie. A happy lie that he’d convinced himself to believe.

The truth, which Sylvas had been keeping from his peers was that he could draw mana faster than any of them. Closing his eyes and visualizing mana swirling all around him, drawing it in towards him with every breath in, and letting it drift away with every breath out. If he tried to grab it like they all did in the beginning, then it slipped through his fingers, but if he drew it to himself slowly, like a fisherman working some great fish on the line, then it would come to rest in his grasp. But he feared to tell anyone, even Mira, because all too quickly her jokes about sharing his secrets could become the truth, and the one advantage he had over the others might evaporate.

It was all in the books. While the rest of them complained about how uncomfortable their solitary cells were, Sylvas reveled in having peace for the first time. Better still, there was nobody counting his candles. He could read as late as he desired, and everything in the library was available to him.

Force of will was what steered mana. Concentration. If there was one thing that Sylvas had, it was willpower. He had made it through the orphanage. Through the tests that the Heralds concocted for him now. Through the sleepless nights, curled around the scrolls of sigils. Memorizing spells, memorizing the shapes the mana would take when he managed to grab control of it. Will was the one thing that he was not lacking, and it showed. 

“I believe that I may have to kill you, Sylvas Vail.”  Mira was cursing his name again by the end of the week. She’d no sooner managed to draw mana successfully during her sessions in the big work hall, then he’d managed to cast for the first time. 

He was the first in the entire group to achieve such a thing. The flash of light that had defined their introduction to magic. A brief and momentary thing, but one that nobody could pretend was only in his head. Not even Sylvas. The whole room was usually suffused with murmurs and whispers as they were meant to be in silent meditation, but for the first time there was real absolute silence, broken only by Mira’s empty threat.

The Heralds were still unknown to the students. Mira was able to keep Sylvas abreast of all the comings and goings, cliques and infighting among their fellow children, but their instructors remained unknowable. They barely spoke except to give instruction, barely looked at those in their care except when it was necessary, and all in all, Sylvas was glad that he’d been polite to the servants from the beginning as they seemed to be the only adults willing to behave like human beings. So, when the Heralds approached him after that first day of successful casting, he did not know the pair of them. He’d have recognized the woman who first recruited him from the orphanage, but these were not her. 

As they led him off, out of the long hall of scowling students still seated in their unlit circles, he cast a brief backwards glance to Mira, fully expecting her to be just as furious as the rest that he was advancing and she was falling behind, but the expression on her face was strange. Some mixture of calculating and impressed. He didn’t know what to make of her, even now. He was still waiting for the other shoe to drop and for her to reveal that their friendship was a long con, or a practical joke.

“You alone have succeeded.” One of the heralds at his side told him. A tall grizzled man with a beard dangling from his cowl to his chest. “So the Masters wish to speak with you.”

From behind the closed doors of their chambers just beneath the flat top of the tower, the Masters ruled over everything. They were the ones who had sent out the Heralds to fetch children. They were the ones with the true books of magic that the students were too undeveloped to see from which their scrolls and exercises were drawn. 

“You will speak only when addressed directly. The words of the masters are for your ears only and are not to be repeated. Any breach of these rules or that trust will result in dire consequences.” The other herald didn’t ask if Sylvas understood. His understanding was unnecessary. These were not threats, they were statements. His understanding mattered less than his obedience.

“You will obey whatever directives the masters deliver unto you as though they are spoken by the Hollow Heart itself. Failure is unacceptable.” Trust in the Masters was absolute, not because there was any clarity in their actions or the words filtered down from them, but because they were the only authority left to answer to. The only order left in Sylvas’ world.

And now he would go through those closed doors. He would enter those chambers. He would meet the Masters. It was almost overwhelming, but only almost, he kept his wits about him as the dark wooden doors were parted and the chamber beyond was exposed. There were no windows, only candle-light, and even that was dim, and arranged in such a way that the people seated in the podium were kept deep in the shadows of their cowls. What harm it could do to expose their identity to him? Sylvas had no idea.

“Acolyte, you have achieved that lowest order or magic. The casting of a spell.” The voice of the Master was strange, androgynous. Deep, but not so far from being a woman’s that it was impossible. “It is time for your training to progress to the next stage. The first secret of the Heralds shall be yours.”

Despite its darkness the room gave up some secrets. A smell of damp and ancient paper. Dusty despite the underlying rot. Books and ancient relics were in here, beyond the candle-light. The secrets that the Masters taught, bound in leather.

Another voice echoed from the other side of the chamber. This Master remained seated while the others stood. Perhaps a disability, perhaps simply a distraction. The voice did not sound so rough that it could be mistaken for anyone elderly. “Anyone can do magic if they know the words, the sigils, the circle to contain the mana long enough to use it.” “But we want you to go further. We want you to be more than just brief conduits for the mana to pass through. To hold it inside you, to use it when you want it. A real mage, not just a dabbler. Like so many before you.”

“The mana within you is now under your control.” This voice was distinctly female and faintly familiar, like he had known its owner once, long ago. “Where you will it to go, it shall go. But without a circle to bind it, it shall flee you and leave a barren waste behind.”

Sylvas was already familiar with the first hints of that sensation. Everywhere that he went, mana tickled through him now, but it was only in the circle that it condensed enough for him to feel like it was more than cobwebs brushing over his skin. Drawing mana within the circle left him feeling oddly sated, and the sudden emptiness after he had cast a spell came as a shock every time.

The first master spoke again. “To progress, to become, you must make a binding within yourself.  A circle forged of mana to hold a well within you.”

“The Way of the Hollow Heart is the way of emptiness.” The seated Master spoke, and all the cowled heads turned that way in time with Sylvas’s. “To form a circle within you, you must first cultivate an empty place devoid of flesh and thought through which the mana might flow.”

The familiar voice, tickling at the edge of Sylvas memory came again. It couldn’t be the woman who had come and taken him from the orphanage, for he’d seen her around Telas Mirmir. She was not secluded away from them all. “You shall embody magic, integrate mana into your body, to become a better vessel for it.”

“Your Embodiment shall be the Arterium Arcanum. The scroll for its achievement can be found there, by your hand.” Sylvas had not even noticed the podium at his side in the midst of all the excitement.

Another of the Masters spoke, but Sylvas was too distracted by the scrolls laid out beside him to mark which one. “And for your mind, your Paradigm shall be the Cavus Cephalos. The scroll for its achievement lies by the Arterium Arcanum.”

“Through these techniques combined, you shall achieve the first degree of enlightenment, and you can begin to prepare for the challenges ahead.” The first voice came again.

“Do not hesitate.” One master said.

“Do not delay.” Echoed back another.

They spoke in practiced succession despite being unable to see one another. “Your advancement is vital to the cause.”

The woman’s familiar voice drew his attention back to her, standing there at the opposite side of the circle. “You have been chosen for a reason.”

He had been warned not to speak out of turn, but it seemed to Sylvas that there had been no moment throughout the meeting in which it had been his turn. In a way it was a relief, he’d had no opportunity to show himself up with his lack of good breeding and culture.

With all said and done, he was taken not to the grand chamber where they all practiced to resume his work but down instead. Down past the ground floor of the tower and deeper. Past the kitchens and store rooms and all the rest, until finally he came to a cell, a half of the size of the one in which he slept. It looked more like a dungeon than a room in which a student might undertake a lesson.

Inside, there was a circle, not marked in chalk, but carved into the stone itself.  The room smelled of rust and sweat despite the cool temperature down here beneath the surface. He still had the scrolls grasped ever so slightly too tightly in his grip. The Herald with the beard seemed to take some sick pleasure in pushing Sylvas towards the door. “The last student to study down here died in this room. Seems like it will suit you well.”

“I’ve always appreciated the quiet of solitude.” Sylvas replied, painstakingly politely.

They closed the door on him, leaving him alone in the dim light of a single candle on a shelf carved into the raw stone of the tower foundations. He took a single breath of the cold dank air and settled to begin his new studies.

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