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Chapter 4

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“While one’s paradigm can be considered simply to be a guiding philosophy, in the embodiment we see a mage’s true commitment to their craft. It is one thing to dabble in the forbidden arts, another entirely to turn over your body to the service of those arts. Magic demands much of those who would wield her. Too much for many.”

—The Body of Work, Lerman Vilmander

The other students had been disdainful before. Now they hated him. They had always been snide and quiet around him, silence falling as he passed, but now they went on talking as he went by, even speaking up louder as they disparaged him. He could do what the rest of them struggled and strived for and they hated him for it. This child without a family or education beyond any street rat’s shouldn’t have been able to surpass them. 

He was alone in the tower, the same way that he’d been alone in the orphanage, surrounded by people, but distant from them all the same. The only way out of this exile was to do even better, to be so much better that they had no choice other than to accept him.

“Tell me everything.” Correction, he was alone apart from Mira, who he just couldn’t seem to rid himself of, even when everyone else loathed him.

“I am not permitted to speak of the masters…” He began.

“Forget the masters, what do they have you doing down there in the dungeons?”

His brows drew down and he cast a nervous glance to the other tables in the dining hall. “How do you know where I…”

“Servants.” She cut him off. “Now spit it out.”

“I am not permitted to speak of…”

She leaned across the table until their faces were almost touching. “Don’t let a little bit of attention go to your head, I will still absolutely smack you.”

Sylvas weighed his options. Judged that nobody was liable to be listening in on their conversation, and answered her honestly. “Initiation rites, changing my body and my mind to hold mana inside me.”

“I knew it.” She dropped back into her seat.

“Then why did you ask…”

“Alright fine,” She rolled her eyes. “I suspected it and you confirmed my suspicions. Pedant.”

Sylvas tried to justify telling her to himself. “It does seem the inevitable progression of what we have been learning.”

She ducked back in to be uncomfortably close to him. “So tell me what I need to do.”

“You need to learn how to cast spells every time you are trying to.”

She tutted. “Yes, very droll. Then what?”

He leaned back as far as the chair allowed. “Then the Masters will share the next step with you.”

“Oh you’re serious?” Genuine surprise washed over her face.

“I don’t know what would happen if you tried to take the next step of our journey before completing the first, but I fear it could be catastrophic.”

There was genuine venom in her voice. It stung Sylvas to hear it. “Because you are so terribly wise now that you’ve advanced ahead of us.”

“Because I’ve been studying the techniques they gave me, and it feels like there are good odds that they’re going to kill us if we do them wrong.”

“Oh so you’re holding out on me out of concern for my safety?” She fluttered her eyelashes coquettishly. “How sweet. Give me the scrolls.”

They remained locked in his cell beneath the earth. “I cannot.”

Thoroughly disgruntled, Mira flung herself back in her own seat, nearly rocking it back and over. “Ugh. What is the point of being your friend if you won’t help me?”

“I thought the point was having a friend.” Sylvas had always been good at keeping his emotions concealed, but this outright admission from Mira that she was only using him for the help he could grant her hurt all the same.

“Oh, don’t be maudlin.” She picked up on his carefully controlled expression. “We’re still going to be friends, even if you insist on being useless to me. I’d just rather not be riding your coat-tails for the whole time that I’m here.”

He let out a little snort of relief. “Perhaps you could devote some of your scheming and intrigue time to studying?”

“And leave the scheming and intrigue up to you?” She faked a laugh. “We’d be dead in a week.”

The long hall where Sylvas and the other students gathered each day became a distant memory. Something to look back on fondly. He spent every day buried so deep that he had to pass by all the servants who kept the place running, past the warmth of the kitchens and the laughter of normal people who hadn’t been chosen for something great. On the way down, he didn’t mind it, but on the way back, when he was exhausted and every step felt like a mountain he had to climb, he envied them. They get to live and laugh without having to think about magic. They get the joy of knowing it exists without having to do the painful work of making it happen.

“Are you going to tell me what it is yet?” Mira ambushed him outside of his quarters with unerring frequency. He wondered how much time she actually spent lingering there.

“Have you learned to cast consistently?” He asked, and she slammed his door shut behind him.

Down in the cell in the dungeons it was almost as cold as the orphanage used to get, but he would still leave it every night slick with sweat. The first part was easy, sitting down in the circle and calling in the mana, but then things took a turn for the worse. When he was drawing the mana in now, he wasn’t trying to cast a spell, he was driving it into his own body. He was carving channels in his own flesh for it to pass through. At least three times a day as he struggled against it, he whispered to himself. “You can do this.”

The diagram of the correct formation of channels was laid out in front of him on a scroll that he was allowed to show nobody. The lines, snaking out from the middle of the chest. The detailed instructions on where the mana could be pushed without killing him. “You can do this.”

It had taken him weeks to learn the most basic parts of casting a spell consistently, but this new practice led nowhere. Pushing the mana inside his body did nothing but hurt. It burned where it touched, cold as ice despite the searing pain, but he kept at it all the same. He knew that there was a prize at the end worth any amount of suffering. He reminded himself again and again. You can do this.

Slowly, inch by agonizing inch, the mana that he pulled inside began to flow out to where he had been driving it. Just a tiny fraction of what he could gather in the circle, but enough that he could feel it inside him. You can do this.

On the day that he threw up blood, Mira found him. He was curled up around himself, still in the circle, still trying to drive more mana into the channels that had encroached too close to his stomach. “Sylvas!” She dropped to her knees beside him, heedless of the blood soaking into her skirts. “What happened?”

He shook his head. “Told you… it was dangerous…”

“I’ll fetch one the heralds.” She moved towards the cell door, but he caught her by the sleeve, drawing a gasp of surprise out of her.

“No.”

She boggled at him. “What?”

He tried to use his tenuous grip on her to pull himself up to sitting, but the pain, it wasn’t just the usual burn of mana searing through flesh, it was acid searing inside him. “They’ll… make me stop.”

“Someone has to, you’re killing yourself!” She snapped back.

Sylvas laid his head back against the stone. “I’ve bled… for less important things.”

She tugged her arm free of him. “I’m getting someone, right now.”

“Don’t.” He barely managed to groan.

“Alright, stop me.” She took a step towards the door. “Stand up and make me stop.”

“I… Can’t.” She knew very well that he couldn’t.

“Then you need help.”

He lost himself to the dark soon after she left the cell. If she hadn’t come along, he wasn’t sure he would have survived the night. As it was, he awoke in his chamber, laid up in his bed, with a cut and stitches on his torso that had not been there before. The tug of more stitching within him making itself known every time he tried to move. 

One of the servants brought him food and helped him with his ablutions in what had to be the single most mortifying experience of his life. She knew nothing of what had befallen him, only that one of the ‘little masters’ had taken ill and needed some tender care. She brought him the books that he requested and left him alone to realize that he was too weak to hold a leatherbound tome over his face, and too pained to move around to rest it on anything. The time was destined to be wasted it seemed.

Mira came to him the next day, and he gave her all of the contempt that he could muster in his stare. “I told you not to tell them.”

The Masters had sent down orders for him. Conveyed by one of the Heralds in passing. They made him lie in his bed, staring at the ceiling, learning nothing until he healed. Weeks might pass before then, and he knew that already some of the other students had been consigned to dungeon cells of their own. The only comfort that he could take was the idea that he had a month’s head-start on them, even if they were being given ample time now to get ahead of him.

“Would you rather have died?” Mira had been quick to snap back. “You would have, you know.”

He groaned as he tried to sit up and see her. “I doubt it.”

“Oh yes, you’re right, life-saving surgery is definitely something you can just skip because it is interfering with your schedule.”

“If you hadn’t interfered, I could have cauterized the wound as I proceeded.” He gave up on sitting up. Glowering angrily up at the same patch of ceiling he’d been looking at for hours.

She snapped. “You passed out from blood loss, you pig-headed oaf.”

“Pig-headed…”

She seized hold of his chin and twisted his face towards her. She was close now, far too close for comfort. “Do not make me worry about you again, I did not enjoy it and I do not appreciate it.”

His eyes flitted down to her lips where they were slightly parted and dewy in the candle-light and then he spoke about something else, anything else to distract him from his hormones. “Why were you in the cellars anyway?”

“To tell you the good news.” She chuckled mirthlessly. “I was being moved to a cell of my own right alongside you and the others, despite your completely absent help.”

He must have drifted off sometime in the midst of their bickering, because when next he stirred the candle had burned down to nothing and he was alone once more. Except that he wasn’t alone. Something was prickling at the periphery of his senses. Some presence in the stillness of his chamber.

“What use is the chosen one if he ends up buried before he’s even begun?”

He knew that voice. The woman who had fetched him first from the orphanage, the one that the grapevine whispered was a bastard-duchess of Telas Norn risen to power by alternate means.

In everything the Heralds said and did, there was a test. He was sore, tired and the practice that was meant to make him a mage had rendered him an invalid, so he imagined that they thought him defeated. He replied carefully, “What use is a chosen one who can’t achieve his potential?”

“You will end your studies here. We shall find you some quiet apprenticeship to retire to and live well.” It was phrased as a statement, but Sylvas knew it was a question. If such a thing had been decided, they would not have sent a herald to discuss it with him, he would simply have found himself shipped off.

“I will not.”

There was a soft intake of breath. Feigned surprise at his defiance, perhaps. Then her voice again in the dark, soft as a whisper. “To continue is to court death.”

He had always known this. Once you understood it, it was so easy to see how magic could go wrong.  How a mis-spoken word or some misshapen mana might bring his life to an end. He had made peace with it. “We all die. But I’d rather have my life matter first.”

If she was surprised at that answer, then she hadn’t been paying as close attention to him as he had suspected. I was nobody. I had no family, no friends, no money. I was never going to make any difference in the world. I was never going to matter. I was going to be forgotten. The heralds had changed that. They had given him a chance to be more, to matter, to change the world. There was no way he was going to give up that opportunity just because it might kill him.

Her visits went on through his convalescence, brief checks to ensure that he was still alive. The three women, Herald, Servant and Mira, were the only brief respite that he had from the awful boredom. He could not get up. He could not draw a circle, unaided, with which to undertake his embodiment. All he could do was wait, and guide Mira through the difficult early stages as best that he could.

He was falling behind.

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