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Chapter 5

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“Circles are the most natural form in the universe. The geometry of a circle interferes with the free passage of mana. The natural curvature is a temptation that mana cannot seem to resist following instead of pushing through. All spellforms are ultimate shaped of intersecting curves, with points of crossover the nexus in which effects are created. And any circle, sufficiently reinforced with sigils, will contain mana in its raw and undirected state. Through this simple device mana saturation can be achieved and the unattuned can begin their training.”

—Sacred Geometry, Archmage Karth Veilbohr

Neither Sylvas nor Mira would ever admit to another mistake, and before long it became common practice amongst all the students to hide the wounds that their Embodiment was dealing them. Bandages were discreetly shared under the dining table and the aroma of antiseptic herbs became as commonplace as any incense.

Sylvas bled. Sylvas hurt. But inside him, bright channels of power began to spread. His body wasn’t his own anymore. It was a home for the mana. It belonged to magic, and there was nothing than he hated more than when the end of the day’s meditation came, he stepped over the borders of his graven circle and the mana flooded out of him again, leaving him hollow.

Mira and he took turns helping one another up the stairs, depending on which of them had done themselves the graver injury. The Arterium Arcanum was demanding, training the body to accept mana was like training a fish to breathe air, and to Sylvas immense annoyance, this was still the easy part of preparing to become a mage. His embodiment was progressing in slow agonizing increments, but it was progressing. The other part of the equation; his Paradigm.

The sacred texts had called this Embodiment. The Arterium Arcanum Embodiment. And it was, to Sylvas immense annoyance, the easy part of preparing to become a mage. To hold magic inside him required more than just carving channels through his flesh with mana. The body was only half of the equation. He needed to change his mind too. 

All that he needed to do to progress in the Arterium Arcanum was suffer and mutilate himself for months on end, but the Cavus Cephalos Paradigm escaped him entirely.

Emptying the body of flesh so that mana could pass through hurt, but it was achievable. Emptying his mind of thoughts was impossible. Sylvas had no idea how to not think. Every moment of every day, he had a thousand thoughts running through his head. He did what the scrolls said, he visualized himself in emptiness with nothing but the distant stars around him. He let his body take over its own functions and freed his consciousness. And then something would pop into his head. Some spell or translation that he was working on. Some footnote on one of the Sacred Texts might have helped him to clear his mind but it was now the thing occupying his mind when he was trying to keep it clear. It didn’t matter how smart he was. How much he had learned. How hard he studied. His mind just wouldn’t stop. Maybe if he hadn’t been smart, and hadn’t learned so much, there would have been less tucked away behind the curtains in his brain to slip out onto center stage every single time he tried to clear it.

“Why isn’t this easier?” Mira huffed after another long day of failure. “Animals don’t think all day long. Rocks don’t think. I’d swear most people don’t think either. So why can’t we?”

Sylvas had a napkin held up to his eye to catch the blood leaking from his tear duct, but he managed to give her a contemptuous look all the same. “Because they aren’t trying to simultaneously empty their mind of all thoughts while also using that same mind to do so. It is like trying to lift a box that you are standing on top of.”

“But they are still doing it!” Mira’s voice dropped to an aggravated hiss. Her progress with her embodiment was as far along as Syvlas’ by now, thanks to his assistance in the early stages, and his own inability to progress while laid up. She was not the only one. She recounted rumors of the successes and failures of the others constantly, but Sylvas barely even saw them anymore. Each abided by their own schedule of study. Some slept all day, preferring the dead of night to be wasted down in their cell. Others stuck to the usual schedule. Meal times were the only occasions when they were all together, and a fair number of them didn’t bother to attend. Preferring more rest, or more work. Ambition seemed to have brought the majority up to speed with Sylvas, with only the time that he’d started ahead of them earning him his highly disputed position as the best student.

“Then seek that which makes the stone unthinking, or the rodent or whatever else it is that you’re intent on emulating.” He was too tired to even argue properly. He’d started off trying to sound wise and abandoned that course midway.

“Rodents have brains a fraction of the size of ours, rocks have no brains at all. So unless you want to do some swift work around my skull with a chisel, I believe that we need to return to our initial concept.”

It had taken him months before his Embodiment was nearing complete. Slow months with nothing to show for them but blood in his chamber pot and pains in places that he hadn’t known he was capable of feeling pain. But even by the end of that, when he could fill the channels of mana within him freely at will whenever he was in a circle binding, and sometimes feel mana lapping at them like a rising tide being held at bay outside of the circle too, his Paradigm was no further forward. He would manage moments of emptiness. Moments that were interrupted just a breath later when the most inane thought about nothing important drifted into his mind and ruined everything. The harder he tried, the more frustrated he became, and the worse that he got at it. 

Then came the funeral. It wasn’t the first. The longer that they studied magic and practiced their embodiments, the more funerals they attended. Every member of the Heralds from the Grand Masters down were in attendance in the gardens of Telas Mirmir. The place was perpetually in a haze of fog and rain from up on the mountains, but by some working of magic, today there was only the dull chill in the air and the earth was unsodden enough that it could be dug without difficulty.

Sylvas didn’t know the name of the dead student. He hadn’t troubled himself to learn most of them. They were his competition, not his friends. The only friend he had was Mira, and she was standing beside him in uncharacteristic silence, holding his hand limply.

He was not going to die. The worst part of his embodiment was already done. The vital organs that risked rupture had now been sealed off behind scar-tissue and while the final extending tendrils of mana were closer to the surface now and resulted in endless bruises and bleeds, he believed that the worst of the danger was past. There was no way for him to relate with the failure in the casket, nor any way for him to feel sorry for the dead girl. My doom is going to be altogether different.

In the beginning, he had told himself, over and over like a mantra. “You can do this.” But now when he whispered it to himself, it sounded like he was begging it to be true.

“How are we going to do this?” Mira drew him back out of his sulk a few days later. The bleed in his eye had stopped, but there was a wetness on his ribs that he could only now feel. It was good that their robes were black, it concealed so many stains.

He shifted uncomfortably, hoping that this fresh wound might not need stoppering. “We’re going to keep trying.”

“Time is running out. The other cells beneath the tower are full now. We might have started off ahead, but its just a matter of time before we are surpassed.” She leaned in closer, keeping her voice pitched low so it wouldn’t carry. “Unless we… unless you can solve this.”

He too leaned in closer, quick to try and bolster her spirits as she did for him so often during their struggles. “Don’t discount yourself so quickly.”

“I think we both know that you’re the one with the talent for this.” She scoffed. “The Heralds have had their eyes on you since the first day.”

As if attention meant anything. “So have you.”

That brought her up short for a moment, then she shrugged her shoulders and pushed on. She should not have shrugged like that, because blood began running down from her left ear immediately after the motion. “Because whoever masters magic is going to be the most powerful person on the planet, and I’m placing a hefty wager of time invested on it being you.”

Sylvas chuckled. She’d been spinning these tales of herself as some sort of grand manipulator since the first day to justify why she’d sought his friendship, and each was more entertaining than the last. “Because we’re friends now, I’ll be so indebted to you that I’ll serve whatever scheme you come up with?”

“Of course not, that would be ridiculous.” She said, trying to lift a spoon of stew to her lips and discovering that her elbow had ceased bending partway. “You’ll do as I please because you’ll be my husband.”

“I…” Sylvas mind went entirely blank. “What?”

“You see how substantial my gamble is now? I’ll be known among the ruling houses as the girl who spent half a decade courting some peasant unless you make something of yourself.” She tried to prod him, but her elbow gave up again. “My reputation shall be in tatters.”

“I wasn’t… I’m…” Sylvas took a moment to compose himself. “We aren’t romantically involved.”

“Well no, of course not.” She said, as if it were the least important part of a future marriage. “I’m building rapport with you, establishing a friendship. I’ll woo you with some light petting over the next few years until you’re desperate to marry me. Then I suppose you’ll be uniting the Heralds with the ruling house of Telas Abrak, and become a mage-prince… or perhaps they’ll invent some new title just for you.” 

He stared at her mystified. “And do I get any say in this?”

“Sylvas, darling. You haven’t had a say in anything since the moment I met you, why should that change now?”

“I am not interested in…” She leaned across the table and brushed her lips against his before he could say what he had no interest in. It was the first time Sylvas had been kissed in his life. Soft, fleeting, but shocking enough to his system that he froze for an instant.

Mira settled herself back down with a rather smug expression on her face. Sylvas remained in stunned silence until she cleared her throat. “The problem of the Paradigm?”

I tried anything that might clear my mind, following all the meditation guides I could lay my hands on, begging the Heralds for their instruction, going without sleep for three days straight because I realized that sometimes when I was too exhausted to think, I didn’t think. None of them worked. None of them allowed the mana to flow through his mind the way it did his body. Even as he pushed it at his mind with enough force that blood ran from his nose and his vision darkened, he still could not get it to work.

Then, abruptly, it did.

Embodiment complete, he spent every day and most of the night in his little cell, inside a circle, eyes shut. He had been drawing in more and more mana each session, hoping that eventually the sheer weight of it would break through whatever barrier he was crashing into. The channels inside his body were full, the air all around him was heavy with the potential of the power that he’d gathered and still nothing was happening. 

It should have been.

There was no reason that it wasn’t working. He wasn’t thinking about anything. All his attention was being spent on absolutely nothing. He wasn’t even thinking about what a waste of time this all was when there were so many other things that he could have been doing. Or sitting there feeling completely defeated, the way that he sometimes did this late in the night when he had still failed utterly. He was doing absolutely everything that he was meant to be doing, but it wasn’t working.

Outside in the hallway, a door slammed. One of the other cells. One of his competitors gave up for the night and staggered up to bed. But in his mind, completely empty of all thoughts, he hadn’t been thinking about where he was, or what the noises he was hearing might have meant. 

Instead, there was the bang, and he was instantly back in the orphanage, waiting for one of the bigger kids to come storming in and take their frustrations out on the weaker, smaller ones. He had emptied his mind so completely that he’d lost his place in time. Memories and the present blending into one. His whole body was tense, and he was listening with an intensity that he had forgotten he was capable of. An absolute stillness and silence, like a mouse cowering in the shadow of a hawk.

It should have been the opposite of an empty mind, but that spike of anxiety from so long ago had washed all his thoughts away. He couldn’t think when he needed to focus on what he was hearing, couldn’t think in case he needed to react, so his mind was completely clear. 

The mana flowed.

Carving channels into his body had been agony, but the mana flowed into his mind as if it was the perfect vessel for it. It flowed through his mind, and then out to connect with his body, one continual loop of mana washing through his body in rhythm with his breathing.

Sylvas lost it almost immediately. Completely overwhelmed by the sensation, he did what he always did, made the same mistake he always made, and he tried to analyze everything. When he tried to analyze, his mind filled up with thoughts, pushing the mana out. He tried to grab it, the way that he had when first summoning mana into a circle, but it slipped away.

Sylvas swore in every language he knew. Like one of the sulking rich students. Then he startled himself into silence as his own voice echoed back changed. His voice was so much deeper than he remembered. He had been so focused on the changes he was making to himself, that he had forgotten his body was making changes all its own.

That shock, that silence, was all it took for him to find the emptiness again. When his mind was open instead of focused on its own thoughts. The mana flowed and he felt such elation that he cut it off all over again. I need to calm down. I need to stop worrying that I can never achieve the impossible task of emptying my mind, because now I’ve done it. Twice. He knew how it felt now. And he could do it again and again until he got it right. Until he could hold his mind empty forever.

He slept like a baby that night. Probably for the first time since he was a baby, before the orphanage and the threats that came with it when he was vulnerable and asleep. His future had been hanging in the balance, and now, by luck more than anything else, it wasn’t.

“You bastard, you did it.” Mira caught him by the front of his robes and dragged him away from the rest of the breakfasting students.

“My parents were wed before they died, thank you very much.” He said it reflexively after the orphanage.

Mira was not to be distracted. “You’ve cracked the paradigm, I can see it.”

“You can see it?” He raised an eyebrow at her. Some of the students had made grandiose claims about their abilities in the early part of their stay in Telas Mirmir.

“On your face, you smug ass.” She prodded the offending face with a finger. “You’ve been getting more and more worried for weeks and overnight that just vanishes, what am I supposed to think except that your problem is solved.”

The struggle not to scream and shout about it continued inside Sylvas, but he conceded. “It is.”

“You bastard, you did it.” She repeated.

He couldn’t conceal his smile. “Would you like to learn how?”

That day they sat almost atop one another in the circle in his cell, with him serving as the siphon to draw mana in and her merely saturating herself in it without the effort and thought required. While he did that, filling the space up with mana in what had now become a reflexive way, his mind strayed to her. They were both leaving the gangly awkwardness of youth behind slowly but surely. Taking shape into the adults they would someday become – and despite Sylvas having now perfected the technique of emptying his mind of all thoughts – his hormones were beginning to rear their ugly head again as he made those observations about her.

Perhaps marriage wouldn’t be so terrible a prospect. The two of them certainly got along well. In that she is literally the only person in my entire social circle. He dragged his mind away to focus on the far more important circle that he was working on.

When he summoned the mana, he felt it flowing through his body and his empty mind. It moved almost as if there was no difference between one and the other. It flowed faster through his body than his mind, leading to some odd little hiccups and build-ups of mana within him, but gradually he came to recognize them before they occurred, to give the mana a little push as it passed through the imperceptible barrier between mind and body. The mana, once it was inside him, circulated endlessly between his Embodiment and Paradigm, a perfect circle, made of two parts. He could visualize that circle now, and to his delight, he realized that within it, the mana that he had drawn could not escape. Just as he had drawn a circle of chalk outside himself in the hall above, he had now drawn a circle of mana inside.

“What are you up to back there?” Mira muttered demurely as she glanced back at him, breaking his concentration and letting all the mana that he’d contained flood out of him again. It washed over her, drawing out a surprised gasp which distracted Sylvas even more. Perhaps this had been a bad idea.

She huffed. “I swear I almost had it before you… I almost touched that instinctive animal mind that you say is the route to mastery. I can understand why they had us work separately before, having someone so close is definitely a distraction.”

Sylvas was quick to shuffle away from her and out of the circle, conceding, “Maybe this wasn’t our best idea.”

She fluttered her eyelashes at him mockingly, “Oh but it was so terribly romantic of you, wanting to share your big moment with me.”

“Don’t you have a paradigm to master?” He grumbled.

She snapped back, “Don’t you have a metaphysical circle to forge out of mana?”

“Don’t you have a cell of your own to sit in?” He was working on the circle. It was just taking time to solidify it.

“Don’t you have any sense of propriety?” She placed a hand on her chest and feigned a gasp. “Inviting a young woman to sit on your lap all day?”

Sylvas choked on his next words, and Mira left the room smirking before he could get out a rebuttal. Some glorious day, he would get the last word, but it remained in his distant future.

There were many things that texts had never explained. They had told him how to get to this point, and said that after he had combined Embodiment and Paradigm he would have mastered the movement of mana within himself, and would be able to retain the mana that he needed to cast, but they never said how. 

From hints and implications across dozens of texts, he had worked that the circle of mana flowing through him containing the gathered mana within. Now that he had the flow of mana within him regulated to ensure that it moved smoothly between both halves of the circle, he realized how easy it was to manipulate any mana inside of himself but still he was no closer to being able to retain the mana within him once he left the external circle carved around him. The flow of mana held for a while, but it was too ephemeral, it would wisp apart and leave him with no way of holding the mana within him in its place. Then he’d be back to the start again.

Each day, he aligned his body and mind, and drew in mana. More than he had ever been able to muster before. Until it glowed within him at the center of his being, pulsing in time with the heart it shared the same space with. Surrounded by the circle that he had made with flows through his body. He kept on drawing in more, and as he did, more radiated out, trying to escape but colliding violently with the circle. It bounced and rebounded around inside of him. Hurting with every deflection and threatening to break his concentration, but still he drew more and more, until there was no more room within the circle, and it began to suffuse out. The flowing circle of mana became denser as mana bled into it, thicker and slower moving until finally, weeks after he had achieved the paradigm, it became solid. He let go of his control over the mana then, surprised into stillness. The circle didn’t move. The mana trapped inside did not escape. He had forced so much mana into it that it had become a solid band of magic inside him.

He rose to his feet, muscles aching after so long without movement, but the circle of forged solid mana did not budge, not even when he took that first stumbling step outside the circle on the floor.

Sylvas was a mage. The first mage of his generation. He walked up the stairs, past the sobs and cries in the other cells where his counterparts were still laboring away, mining out parts of their bodies so that the mana had somewhere to flow. Past the bloodstains and the bad memories of everything that he’d put himself through. None of it mattered because he had made it to his goal. As for the rest of them, still struggling and striving to do the same thing that he had achieved, it didn’t matter if they succeeded or failed, because he was the first. He would always be the first.

He had won.

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