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Chapter 7

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“There is no material in all of creation so prized, sought after and despised as Etherium. Without it, we would not have the raw mana potential to perform many of the acts of magic required to maintain an interplanetary society, but the conflicts spawned by those seeking the rarest of materials have resulted in such widespread death and destruction that one is forced to ask whether it is all worthwhile.”

—Star Shipping: Logistics of the Empyrean, Rudvin Hammerheart

Preparations began the very next day. And there was much to prepare before the time came. The ritual would coincide with the planetary alignment, when all of the spheres of their system formed a line and all of the mana that usually spun off them and drifted wild through space was drawn along that line.

The tower of Telas Mirmir had been constructed specifically for its location as a focal nexus of the floes of mana throughout the world, and it was here that the great line of mana being forced into Croesia by the aligned planets would strike down. Yet this in itself would not be enough to open the gates of heaven. The power gathered in Telas Mirmir by the alignment would be used only by the others, in the casting of the many pieces of magic required to make the way ready, and to channel all that was leftover to the focal point atop the tower.

The tower of the fortress in which Sylvas had spent his entire adult life was flat-topped with a single smooth plane of stone stretching out across its whole surface. How the workers had managed to get it up there without magic at their disposal defied all logic. It had been built right back at the founding of the Heralds to someday serve this final purpose. A grand canvas on which he would lay down the chalk markings of the greatest summoning circle the world had ever seen.

Secrets had always been a part of living among the Heralds. The grand masters knew all and revealed little, only doling out lessons as they became essential, but now, so close to fulfilling his grand destiny there was one secret that they still held back from Sylvas, to be revealed upon the final day before he cast the most important spell in the history of the world; the source of mana that they would be relying on to perform the spell of summoning and cast open the gates of heaven. 

He pressed on with his work in ignorance, mastering every other component of the great spell, but throughout the whole process he could not shake the feeling that he was being watched. Sylvas was used to some of the younger students at Telas Mirmir giving him uncomfortable amounts of attention, and some of the older Heralds too, but this felt different. There was no reason for anyone to hide admiration, or any of the other, less respectful, reasons that they might stare at him, so this veiled interest made the hair on the back of his neck prickle up. It was only a week before the final day that he finally caught sight of the watcher.

Slim enough across the shoulders that she could not have been a grown man, identity entirely concealed beneath the hood of the Herald’s robes. She watched him as he went about his studies. Not when he was performing magic and teaching others, but when he was alone, meditating for mana or re-reading the ritual needlessly. More than once he’d risen from where he had been working and moved to approach her, but every time by the moment that he’d arrived, she had vanished, either scampering off somewhere in the tower or blending into the crowd of other initiates of the Heralds. She was like a shadow, always there, just on the periphery of his vision, but always untouchable.

Perhaps one of the masters had come out of seclusion, perhaps a herald, obsessed as he was with the great work, perhaps simply a coincidence.

She was a small mystery, compared to the grand ones that Sylvas worked to unlock. He could not allow himself to lose focus on the task at hand. In seven days, the world would end by his hand and a glorious new order would be born.

“I can’t believe that they’re actually trusting you with this.” Mira slumped down on the bed beside him. It was long past midnight, but he remained propped up, reading and rereading the spell. The intersections between the working he would commit and the mana-forms that the others were contributing.

“Thank you for that vote of overwhelming confidence.” He attempted to frown at her, but it didn’t come to fruition.

She leaned her head on his shoulder, eyes glazing as she took in the complex spell laid out on paper. “I’m sure you’re the best qualified by far, I just mean… it seems like such an impossible thing?”

He smiled. “Doing impossible things is what magic is for.”

She made a little noise. Non-committal. As if she weren’t sure if he was right or not. Then she said, “When its done, we should get married.”

He raised a wry eyebrow, entirely too accustomed to her outlandish statements to be flustered by this point. “Should we?”

“You’ll be at the height of your popularity immediately after gracing the world with the presence of the divine. It should be more than sufficient to convince my family that you’re worthy of me.”

For all that it was somewhat degrading to be discussed in such a manner, he’d always appreciated that Mira was candid about how her family would think of him rather than trying to divert him with niceties. “And you don’t think I’ll have better prospects as the savior of Croesia?”

“Oh don’t be silly, you’re utterly smitten with me.”

Perhaps he should have denied it, but the sad truth was that she was basically his whole world. When he thought about other people, they were in the abstract. Numbers and names. Only Mira felt real.

On the night of the cosmic alignment, the sky was clear. It was silly to have thought that it could have been otherwise. It was fated, and even if it wasn’t, everyone working atop the tower knew spells to change the weather by this point in their education. All the stars shone down on the rooftop of Telas Mirmir where Sylvas and the other heralds made ready, and to the distant periphery a circle of the other members of the Heralds stood silent witness. The Grand Masters were among them. Gathered to the rear of the tower on a raised podium where they could keep watch over proceedings. Among them sat the reliquary, with the source of power that would make this whole evening possible, and to the very furthest left of their line stood Sylvas’ Watcher.

The wind whipped by, making those Heralds closest to the edge grab for each other with every gust, but it did not trouble Sylvas and the others doing the great work at all. If anything, having the chalk dust blown away from their summoning circles made it easier to keep everything clean and precise as they laid them out. Or rather, as the acolytes laid them out, and Sylvas walked around methodically checking every single detail of the spell over. The Grand Masters could have done this double checking after a lifetime of studying the Sacred Texts, he was sure, but they had delegated this task, along with all magical workings involved in this night, to him. It was an incredible honor. And a terrible pressure.

Even when there were perfectly scribed sigils he found himself scrubbing them away and rewriting them himself if there was even a hint of doubt in his mind. The original mage tasked with scribing them looked affronted every time, but Sylvas couldn’t bring himself to care. This was the most important spell that had ever been cast, and he wasn’t going to let someone’s feelings get in the way of making sure it was done right. Mira’s section seemed to be perfect, which made sense, as he had gone through every inch of it with her. Even so he mimed wiping a bit out just to hear her snort in annoyance before flashing her a grin.

Sylvas had never worn one of the fancy timepieces on his wrist that so many of the richer Heralds flashed around proudly, so he had to rely on his own sense of time to tell him when midnight was approaching. That and the fact that search as he might, he could no longer find anything to fix or busy himself with. The preparations were complete.

Sylvas approached the Grand Masters and the reliquary was passed into his care. Everything was going as it should, except for the prickling at the back of his neck that just would not stop. The Watcher’s eyes were still locked on him. He couldn’t see them under the shroud of her robes, but he could feel the stare.

So instead of descending from the dais and beginning the great work, he finally succumbed to temptation, he walked along the line of Grand Masters until he stood face to empty hood with her and asked, “Who are you?”

The voice that answered him wasn’t what he expected, it didn’t sound like some wizened old hag, but someone as young as him, but with a strange almost metallic echo to her voice, like she was wearing a helmet under her hood. “I am only here to observe.” She cocked her head to the side, ever so slightly. “I wanted to be here, to see the beginning.”

He didn’t really know what to say to that, and the other Grand Masters seemed to accept her presence there without comment, so he set his other questions aside to focus on the much more important task at hand.

Looking around him at the gathered acolytes, Sylvas could almost feel their excitement. This was the moment that they’d all been waiting for. The moment they’d all been fighting to get to their whole lives, through the trials of Embodiment and Paradigm, through learning how to carry the mana withing them and shape it into spells. Finally they would do what they were born to do. What fate had decreed would be their duty.

With a nod from him, they began.

Mana was invisible to the naked eye, at least for Sylvas. Some of the more advanced spells that he’d studied spoke about it being visible to mage as if it were a common enough thing, but nobody in the tower could do it. So he had to navigate blind, feeling for the flows of mana and trusting that the shapes that he was forming it into were the correct ones. First, he reinforced himself for the casting to come, his own spells combining with those being cast by the mages around him to make him a suitable vessel for the power that he would soon have to channel. All of the mana that he had worked so very hard to cultivate and store within himself began to wash away, not because there was some leak in his containment, but because he was casting, one spell after another, after another, all just to make himself ready for the spell to come.

It didn’t matter that he was spending all of his own mana, because within the gold-rimmed sealed-lead box that he had been given by the Grand Masters there was a source of mana sufficient to complete the whole ritual without him needing to provide a drop. The reliquary was sealed with a combination lock, a riddle only solvable by those who had studied magic, knew the specific patterns of thought that defined the Heralds of the Hollow Heart and most importantly of all, knew the name of their God, which the etchings were all component sigils of. 

The goal was not to move the various pieces of the lock until a pattern was established in the etchings, but to move them until there was no pattern at all. Until there was an emptiness at the center of the pattern. Only then did the heavy metal spring open and the great gift that had been bestowed upon them was revealed.

Sylvas staggered as the box opened. The wash of raw power coming from the reliquary overwhelmed him and his newly developed senses. It was like the world outside had suddenly become as dense with mana as he was on the inside. As if he were in a circle and every mage here had dumped out all the mana they could muster into it. They hadn’t even started trying to draw on it, but he was already overwhelmed by the power, mana pushing its way through the solid circle of mana within him to fill his core even though he had not tried to draw it in.

All around him, he could see the same effect rolling out across the rooftop. They were all contained in one great circle as well as dozens of smaller ones meant to house the various component spells that would eventually be combined, but Sylvas had the sense that even without that containment, there was so much mana pouring out of the box that it would have felt the same.

Using his eyes, instead of his other overwhelmed senses, he peered down into the reliquary and saw a crystal. They had made some small study of crystals in his training, as their habit of vibrating at different frequencies could make them useful in designing focuses for magic, but nothing had ever been told to them about this. It felt like it should have been glowing, but it wasn’t emitting any light at all. Quite the opposite in fact. The surface of the uneven cluster of crystalline shapes was so dark that it didn’t even produce any reflections, and while it should have been quite simple for Sylvas to look down into the reliquary chest and see the thing, as it was the only object lying upon the red velvet, instead he found it was shrouded, as though there was a cloud of darkness surrounding it. As he reached out his hand towards it, he was startled to see the color of his skin fading, first to a monochrome in the starlight, then dipping towards the same total darkness as his fingers brushed against the cold surface of the crystal.

The mana leapt up into him. More than Sylvas could handle, even with all of the reinforcements that he and the others had layered on. He had no idea what happened to a mage that drew too much mana into their body and mind, but he knew that it couldn’t be good, given how many of the other students that they had buried as a result of doing just that. He had to get it out, he pressed back against the mana with his will, and was overwhelmed. There was no sending it back to where it came from, the torrential outburst of power could not be reversed. The only way to survive was to cast the spell. To use the mana faster than it could burst him.

The time-keeper of the Grand Masters watched over them all, cueing up the different mages as midnight approached and the conflux of mana from the aligned stars began to rain down but they need not have bothered. Everyone knew their role, the timing, everything. They had spent their whole lives preparing for this moment. Sylvas looked up to the stars as he spoke the first words of the summoning, the shining clustered dots of the other planets all shining bright for one final moment before they would vanish as they passed into the shadow of Croesia. This was his moment.

The mana within him seemed to roar in answer to all that was raining down, resonating with the power without. The dark crystal laying at his feet at the very heart of the grand design vibrated in tune with it too. Everything thrummed with power, and it was all waiting for him. The spells of reinforcement that he himself had cast were empowered, layer upon layer of magic pressed over him, over the channels of mana carved through his flesh and mind. Everything was ready, everything except for him. His heart was hammering in his chest, the words of the spell doing their best to slip away from him. The pressure of being the one responsible for throwing open the gates of Heaven, the pressure of being the only one who could do it, of being the chosen one that prophecy foretold; it was all too much. How is anyone meant to concentrate with so much riding on their every word?

And in his momentary panic, he reached for the familiar to calm him. To the Paradigm of the Unburdened Mind. All of his fears and doubts were washed away in an instant. Everything was. He had nothing to fear, he had memorized every word of the spell months ago, and it was still fresh on the tip of his tongue. This was the purpose of the Paradigm. Not just making it possible for him to form the circle of magic within him, but ensuring that when the time came, he would be able to act, unburdened by unnecessary thoughts and worries.

Opening his mouth, he began to chant.

At once the sigils scribed onto the rooftop began to glow with the gathered mana, chalk sizzling away to be replaced with golden light, golden sigils drifting up off the ground to float around the central point of the circle as Sylvas spoke. The dark crystal flared with mana, sending shadows up in a plume amidst the swirling sigils, such raw power, bound in their turning circles.

All across the rooftop, the hundred spells that comprised the greater one were spoken to life, each one of them sending the sigils glowing golden and spiraling up into pillars, drifting in a slow orbit around the central point of the spell that Sylvas was casting. Each one of them was another system in orbit around the galactic swirl of magic above the dark crystal.

One mage casting alone would have taken a week to prepare all of the parts of this spell, it was so intricate and dense, not to mention that each glowing sigil drifting by was composed of so much condensed mana that it had become visible to the naked eye, more than most of these mages could muster in a day.

Sylvas was not another singer in the chorus, he was the conductor, his words gave the other spells their direction, made them sound like one coherent song instead of a cacophony. But he was more than that too. The summoning might have been gathering around the dark crystal, but it was him that was going to serve as the focal point for it all, broadcasting the full and unabridged version of this call out into the universe once it was complete.

The power flowing up from the dark crystal now seemed to redouble its efforts, going from a whisper of magic rising into the sky to becoming a torrent, and a quick glance skywards told Sylvas why. The planets had aligned. The flow of mana was at its peak.

The final sigils rose from the roof to join the constellation of mana gathered above, and with one great effort of will, Sylvas drew the completed spell to him. The mana of the crystal leapt ahead of the spell, striking him with enough force that he would have been torn into bloody pieces, were it not for all the reinforcements layered on him. It drove through his channels, refilling his core to bursting and then went on pushing, straining against the Circle inside him. It too would have shattered without all the spells of reinforcement still being cast and recast on him.

Wetness trickled down his cheeks, and Sylvas didn’t know if his eyes were bleeding, or if he was just weeping at the beauty of the spell that he was working.

The spell, the great work that they had all devoted their lives to, had moved in slow orbit around the pillar of mana that the crystal was projecting up, but now it followed the flow of power. It rushed after the mana, into Sylvas. When he spoke, every word felt like fire. Scorching up his throat even as spells of healing repaired him. “I cast the gates of heaven open.” 

Thunder pealed all around them, not a single rumble, but concussive blasts sounding over and over again. Blinding light burst to life outside of the summoning circle. Each thunderous roar another explosion of light, each explosion of light not fading after it had appeared, but expanding, stretching out to reveal a darkness within. Like tears in the fabric of the world.

Still Sylvas pressed on. He had been warned in the scriptures that there would be unexpected effects when so much power was wielded, but they were to ignore everything that happened outside of their circle. This was the Grand Masters command and he would not disobey, or allow himself any petty distractions, not now when victory was at hand. He called out to the night sky, now startlingly dark in contrast to the bursts of brightness that had just marred his vision. “God above all gods.”

His body had been honed to channel this mana, his mind made empty so that the spell could pass through him without damage, but all the same, he bled. His hands shook as he shaped the mana spilling from them into more sigils to fill in the breaks between one great spell and the next and bond them all into a single masterful working. Once again, it was only his indomitable will that got him through. That stilled his quaking hands. That forced the words out of his mouth, even as they sizzled and seared. He could taste iron as he cried out. “Master above all masters.”

The rifts in the fabric of the world began to spill out dark shadows. Not the steady flow of mana that came from the crystal, but jagged edged shapes darting off into the night, too dark to make out with the edges of each tear still shining so bright. There was an impact against the invisible barrier surrounding the tower-top, then another, then a steady rattle of bodies being flung against the magic circle, shadowy shapes leering out of the night. Blocking the rifts from sight until only Sylvas, surrounded by the glowing sigils of the spell could be seen at all. He was the only source of light, other than the stars above. Monsters or demons, or whatever they were, they could not enter the circle, and they didn’t matter. All that mattered was the spell. Whatever damage those creatures might have been doing out there to the rest of the world, Sylvas knew it would all be set right when the summoning was complete. “I call to you, oh Hollow Heart!”

“Crimson King of the Starless, Twilight Oracle, Empty Whisper,” Sylvas cried out into the darkness. “I summon you!”

He threw back his head as he bellowed that final word and saw what the others around him had already begun screaming about. The stars in the sky above them, as permanent as anything could be in the universe, had begun to fall.

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