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Chapter 6

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“For some, magic is a purely practical affair, for others a religious experience. Most find that their experience of magic arrives somewhere in the midground, between the calculus of casting and the bliss of magic being done. Yet both seek advancement. The practical, for the new opportunities it presents. The religious, to become more godly.”

—Heretical Philosophies: Understanding the Obsidian Dominion, Elenya Starweaver

The time that Sylvas spent becoming a mage had felt like the longest in his life, but the years that followed had vanished faster than he could blink. Soon he wasn’t just a student, he was the teacher, instructing all of the others in how to achieve what had come to him so easily – from their perspective. His ascension to mage was accompanied by a rapid climb through the ranks of the Heralds. The Grand Masters were still above him, providing him with guidance and instruction from their Sacred Texts, but beyond that, he had almost complete freedom to shape the mages of tomorrow to his own design. Unfortunately for them, the only way that he had learned to become a mage was the hard way, and while he could offer guidance to help them achieve their Paradigm far more easily than he could have, the Embodiment remained the same arduous process, with a fair few casualties along the way.

He wore the hooded robes of the Heralds now, black lined with red silk to represent the Heart, but the other students turned out in the tower gardens garbed all in black at least once a month to consign one of their number to the earth. Every one of them looking down into the hole in the wet dirt, painfully aware that one wrong move could send them to the same place. It was a testament to their courage, or at least their ambition, that none of them ever quit.

“Surprised that wasn’t you.” Mira whispered to him, their hands clasped together far more comfortably after years of familiarity.

“It very nearly was.” He reminded her. “Many times.”

“Never me though.”

It would have been inappropriate to laugh at a funeral, so he restrained himself to a wry smile. “No. You always had the sense to let me wander blind into the uncharted morass first.”

“No point in both of us losing a boot.”

Sylvas own progress in the intervening years had been sufficiently impressive to keep him in the favor of the Masters, even when there were so many other mages now among their ranks. 

With a supply of mana to call upon, he studied the spells that he was now granted access to, massaging many of them into new and more usable forms, and proceeding to teach those forms to the other students. His particular favorite was the Arcane Arrow, which he’d cobbled together from an old manual on mana focus, which essentially just allowed them all to hit each other at a distance, but once that had become widely used, his next new spell: a kind of magical shield to deflect attacks of that sort had become the hottest new commodity to be traded. Most of the other students assumed that they were getting these spells passed down from the tomes of old, and delighted in them. Meanwhile, only the masters and Sylvas knew who was really behind them. And Mira, of course. I have no secrets from her, even when I want to.

Increasingly as the years had rolled on, the applications of the spells that he was learning from the sacred texts were becoming more esoteric, and simultaneously, more focused. Temporary embodiments to reinforce him against channeling more mana than his body could withstand. Wards to direct specific spells away from him. Fragments of spells that were obviously never meant to be cast, but which informed the way that he thought about the next fragment the Masters fed him.

“What do you suppose it all means?” Mira would ask, lolling her head back off the end of his bed as he sat in meditation.

“The spells?” He had only opened one eye, and even that, he’d opened grudgingly. There was a lot of pain when he tried to force more mana into his core than it could hold, and a lot of tension too, as he had to carefully maintain the balance in case he suffered a catastrophic failure of the circle he was putting under strain. Catastrophic in the explosive sense. Not every coffin in the gardens has a whole body inside it, many hold nothing at all.

Still Mira had never let a little thing like mortal danger stop her from chatting. “What are they working you towards?”

He closed his eyes again, trying to find the perfect balance and flow of mana once more. “I’m sure that you will know a moment after I find out.”

“Oh don’t be like that.” She tutted. “You must have theories… suspicions?”

There was so much hinted at it in the texts that he was given, but never clearly stated. It had come to his attention that he was already outstripping all of the existing mages that the Heralds had thus far produced, but even with that, the amount of information being withheld from him was infinite in comparison to what he knew. The argument had always been that this was the path to progression, walking before he could run would be perilous, but by now he was strides ahead of all who’d come before him. He couldn’t understand why they were still being so secretive.

“Something vast.” He eventually said. “A single great spell that outstrips everything that we’ve done before.”

“Then what about what they’re teaching the rest of us? The different training course that they’ve put the new round of orphans into. The ones they’ve hauled in after seeing how well that last gamble paid out?”

“Pieces of the larger spell, I suspect.” Sylvas had poured over Mira’s work, as much for his own understanding of it as to assist her. “Pieces that will make sense when they are all brought together.”

“I’ve mostly been learning bodily reinforcements.”

He was uncomfortable with the admission, but he wouldn’t lie to her unless the masters demanded it. “To keep me alive while I cast a spell of such power it should incinerate me.”

“But you have no idea what that spell is?”

With a sigh, he abandoned his meditation, and opened his eyes to meet her steady stare. “Ascension.”

“So you do know?!”

“No, you asked for a guess. So I’m guessing. I’ve filled myself up with mana until my circle tremors and my channels bleed but I cannot progress beyond where I am. Ascension is the only purpose I could imagine this new spell could hold.”

She smirked. “Because everything is all about you?”

“Because the magic I am studying is beyond what any of us could achieve with the mana we have, and while I’ve no doubt that magic as a team sport would be quite popular, I cannot… I will not accept that this is my limitation.”

She propped herself up on her elbows to plant a kiss on his cheek. “There’s that ambition again. The one that drew me in to start with.”

“And here I thought you were smitten with my absent shoes.” He couldn’t help but smile.

Her gaze drifted down to his lips. “I can feel more than one thing at a time.” As he leaned in a little closer, she stopped him with a fingertip on his chin. “For instance, right now I’m feeling annoyed and tired.” She rolled off the bed and headed for the door.

“Will I see you tomorrow?” Sylvas cursed himself internally for calling after her.

“Don’t you always?” She smirked as she eased herself out into the corridor.

He settled to bed not long after. Most nights, with his meditation uninterrupted, he would have continued pushing, but tonight the exhaustion of it all seemed to catch him by surprise and he took to sleep like a fish to water.

At least until he was stirred by the wards on his door being interfered with.

Some might have called it paranoia, to ward the door to his chambers with locks and alarms when he was surrounded by his own allies, in his own place of power, but some part of Sylvas had never forgotten the orphanage, and the terror of stirring in the dead of night to the sense of bodies in motion in the pitch black. 

He rolled to his feet, sleep already long gone and weighed whether he had time to throw on robes before whoever was coming for him made it through the door. The wards would hold them for a minute at least, assuming that they had a mage almost as good as Sylvas available to them, and since the only ones who would benefit from him dying in the night were those mages second in power to him who sought his position at the top of the ladder, it was a reasonable assumption. 

He shrugged on his outer robe and readied himself, summoning a little ball of light for illumination and catching the briefest glimpse of who he had become in the mirror. His hair, once shaved short to prevent fleas was now long enough to reach his mid-back, bound back in a simple leather tie to keep it from his face. His body had been shaped through years of calisthenic exercises into something that might not have been the ideal, but at least functioned well enough. The only thing that remained familiar was his eyes.

There was a knock on the door. “Sylvas Vail, the Masters require your presence.”

It was her. The bastard-duchess who was as close to a mother as he’d ever know. He tore down his wards with barely a thought, and the door swung open. She was alone, but for one other herald, and neither of them showed any signs of wishing him ill. “They require my presence in the middle of the night?”

“Do you suppose that the time matters when they have a task for you?” She arched a perfectly groomed brow.

“I do not.” He tied the belt of his robe as best he could and followed her into the night-dark corridors.

He found the courage now to speak to the heralds often, even those that had been here since before he was born. At some point seniority was no longer so important. “Do you know what this is about?”

There was a sternness to her features that Sylvas wasn’t used to. “I do not.”

They proceeded in silence from there.

There may have been the full compliment of Masters in the usual chambers, but Sylvas couldn’t see a single one of them. He only knew that the room was occupied at all in its pitch-black state because he heard the softness of breathing.

“You are at your limit.” The voice in the dark spoke with an uneven hitch in its breath. “Mortal as we are, we are bound by our limitations, and you… you have reached yours.”

“I…” Sylvas was at a loss for words. He wondered if this was another test. Like when he had been injured and offered a way to leave.

“This is not a comment upon your ability, it is the natural state of the world, you have climbed as high as you can climb because there are no rungs above you.”

Sylvas fell back into silence. Still unsure. So often in training they had been told things were one way, only to discover that they were the opposite as they ascended. Deception was a necessary part of their training, mana was shaped by belief, and believing that magic was more than they had been told could lead to catastrophe.

“But there is a way to change that natural order.” He felt goosebumps rise across his arms, the hair on the back of his neck stood. “If the Gates of Heaven are opened, then power will rain down on all of us, and a path beyond the Way of the Hollow Heart will be revealed.”

“To open the Gates of Heaven…” The concept was alien to him, mana flowed through all things, but the Way of the Hollow Heart told them that it flowed first and foremost from heaven, where their patron, the Twilight Oracle, dwelled.

“Is the purpose for which you were chosen by the Hollow Heart above. Our god longs for us. He wishes to bathe us all in glory. To remake this sinful world into a righteous place…”

From the shadows, a familiar voice whispered, his own personal patron, the baseborn duchess. “A place where no little boys find themselves in orphanages, alone and afraid.”

“A world without suffering, or cruelty.” Intoned another of the masters. “A world where all are equal.”

The first voice came again. “But he cannot come to us without invitation. He cannot come if the Gates are shut.”

“You shall be the Key and the Gate.” Another voice. Perhaps they were all here after all. “You shall be the lever by which divinity is laid open to us all.”

“This world is unholy.” Came one final voice, wheezing, rasping and geriatric. “But you are not. You are hope. You are the future.”

“This is not an easy thing we ask of you.” Sylvas eyes darted around in the dark trying to follow who was speaking, but he couldn’t make anything out. “If you desire to turn from this course, speak now and no dishonor shall be laid upon you. We ask you to do a greater thing, perform a greater work, than any have ever achieved in all of history. We ask you to make yourself a legend among men. A living embodiment of our god’s power and grace.”

For a long moment there was silence, then they asked, “What say you Brother?”

He was the chosen one. He always had been. The idea that he might flinch away from his task was laughable. “Nothing worth doing is easy.” 

With a deep breath, he reminded himself. “I can do this.”

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