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Chapter 8

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“Much has been said of the Eidolon’s capacity for destruction, but the psychological warfare that it brings to bear against mortals is perhaps its most insidious weapon. Those who stand in the presence of an Eidolon are consumed with fear. Their own emotions overwritten by the will of the creature. It takes an act of willpower to even fight an Eidolon, let alone conjure up the hope that one might prevail.”

—The Forever War: Eidolon Incursions and Defence, Fal’Vaelith

The moment of realization did not jar him out of his state of perfect emptiness for long. It didn’t have time. The spell was passing through him faster and faster now. The sigils swirled up through him as he raised one hand to the heavens and a great burning bolt of pure white light leapt from his palm. The other rifts, the ones outside of the protective circle, had been tiny little pinpricks compared to the massive tear that opened up above the tower. It was vast enough that the whole tower fortress itself could have passed through without brushing the sides. Or at least, it would be, once it had finished opening out. For now there was only the light, and the tiny slit of nothingness running down its center. A tiny slit of nothingness that Sylvas realized with a jolt was not empty but was instead completely dark because something vast was pressed right up against the portal on the other side. Bigger than the tower. Perhaps bigger than Telas Norn, capitol of all Croseia. He could not judge the creature that he beheld, because it was so vast that his mind couldn’t make sense of it.

This was the Crimson King, this was the god that he had been brought into this world to bring forth, to set right all that was wrong in all of creation. The Hollow Heart that all of them served. 

It was terrifying.

It wasn’t just the size of it, but the chittering claws that stretched out to grasp at the edges of the rift and pulled as though it could pry the world open by sheer strength alone. There was a slickness to those claws that reminded Sylvas of the scuttling things that the fishermen sometimes pulled up from the deep oceans and called bad omens. Too many legs, each one of them jagged and razor-edged.

The other mages had scattered, running and screaming at the sight of the rift, at the sight of god descending from the heavens towards them. Only Sylvas maintained the Paradigm of the Unburdened Mind and carried on with the spell. As his supporters broke and fled, the protections that they had layered onto Sylvas began to fade, and the torrent of raw mana passing through him became all the more unbearable. The channels within him, carefully carved and reinforced with years upon years of mana, began to rupture, and the mana that was meant to flow straight up into the portal and spread it wide began to diffuse into him instead. The golden glow of the spell suffused his pale skin, and light began to burst through, searing and scarring as it left him. Pinpricks, like the ones that they’d ripped in the fabric of reality without even trying.

The Grand Masters were the only ones with the presence of mind to come forward and drop to their arthritic knees in supplication. This was their life’s work, just as surely as it had been Sylvas’. Only the watcher didn’t join them, still standing back on the raised dais, watching all the chaos unfolding around her without the slightest sign of distress. Sylvas envied her. He could not look on the tear in the sky that the clawed terror of a god was pulling itself through and feel nothing. He could not look at the stars falling from the sky or hear the screams of the students he’d spent years training or think about the nightmares befalling everyone beyond the protection of the tower’s circle without it intruding on his peace of mind.

The Paradigm was meant to purge him of all that. To leave his mind empty of all distractions. Yet thoughts intruded all the same. He could not look up at the thing slithering through the hole in the air and think nothing. Which meant that what he was thinking was not a distraction or intrusive feeling, it was the correct analysis of what his senses were telling him. 

This was not right.

The spell lurched its way through him now, with all the speed of a runaway horse gone mad. The golden sigils surging up through his body to join the rest of the spell in the sky. Ripping his insides to shreds as they passed. In just a moment, it would all be over, the spell would have passed through him, the dark crystal’s mana would have flowed freely out of his body and up into the portal. Already it had spread wide enough for more of the god to be seen.

Every part of Crimson King that came into sight made Sylvas more horrified. He had not expected god to be beautiful, or at least, he had not expected that god would be beautiful in a way that a human being might understand, but this thing was repulsive in every sense of the word. Where the claws moved aside, there were thick plated scales of the same awful deep crimson chitin, and as the god heaved against the edges of the portal, those scales rippled apart, and Sylvas caught glimpses of what lay beneath. If it had been blood or muscle, his stomach would not have turned. Blood was what you were meant to find beneath flesh, not the empty void that lay inside of The Twilight Oracle. With each mighty flex, and each tiny opening between the vast plates of chitin, Sylvas felt it pulling on him, dragging him up into the air, towards the nothingness at the heart of their god. It truly was hollow, but it was a hungering emptiness that wanted to swallow everything.

In that darkness between the sharp angles of crimson, there should have been stars. Inside, the Crimson King was meant to hold all of eternity, all of creation, instead he was as empty as the promises that the Grand Masters had made.

I can’t do this. Sylvas throat was raw and ragged but the words echoed in his mind all the same.

The seams around the portal were still scorching white, but with time, Sylvas eyes had grown accustomed to them. He could see the slow expansion of the opening now, every word of the spell that he was casting stretching it out a little bit wider. When it was opened up wide enough, the thing on the other side would come through. It wasn’t bringing salvation or a new world where everything was fair, unless you think that everyone being dead is the only way to get equality.

Everything he had been through, everything he had strived for, it had all led him to this moment and now that he was faced with what should have been his greatest victory, his crowning achievement, he wanted to take it back. I have to stop it. The only trouble was that the spell had already been cast.

The grand ritual to bring the Crimson King down from the heavens had already been completed, the words spoken, the mana woven. All that remained was for it to resolve. Sylvas might have been the focus that the spell was passing through, but that did not mean he was casting it, any more than a riverbed was forcing water to flow. It had been cast, the crystal was providing it with all the mana it required, the workings of the spell had been completed, and all that he could do was let it burn through him.

The gateway in the sky was spread wide enough now for Sylvas to catch glimpses of an alien sky beyond the dark mass of the Crimson King. Pearlescent and swirling like oil on water. That tiny bit of illumination made the abomination coming through even more awful. Every ridge and crevasse of its shell shining red as fresh spilled blood, and the darkness between the plates so much deeper in contrast. He had thought that the god’s shell was smooth at a first glance, but now he could see that it was marked with strange whorls and striations, shapes like the sigils that they had chalked out to summon it. Like it was made out of magic itself.

It reached through the opening into the real world and snatched up one of the Grand Masters without hesitation. It had too many of those little pincer legs, but too many of these arms too, each one ending not in a crab-claw like Sylvas might have expected, but a deformed version of a human hand with eight fingers. With the chitinous hide, each hand that stretched through on the hideously elongated arms took on the appearance of a splayed red spider, almost delicate looking when he compared it to the body of the god. But even if they looked delicate compared to the solid trunk of the Crimson King, their grip was still powerful beyond anything Sylvas could have imagined. When it plucked up its victims, they didn’t scream for mercy as they were crushed. That would have taken much more time than they had. The spider-claw hands closed as if the air inside them was empty, and the Grand Masters, the wisest and most powerful people in all of Croesia burst apart like overripe fruit.

Blood should have been raining down, and it did hang in the air all around the god for a moment, but soon it slicked up onto the chitin, slithering across the surface, along the engraved lines and whorls to eventually vanish into the gaps in the armor.

He wasn’t going to let this happen. He had no idea how much damage he’d already done, but he knew in his heart that if the Crimson King made it through there would be no going back. No survivors.

Mira was on her knees, trapped in the rubble of the god’s first touchdown. She was casting, frantically, but all her mana had been spent in the protections layered around Sylvas. He had to stop this now.

The mana flowed through him, carrying with it the sigils of the spell, and with all the force of will that he had left, Sylvas took hold of it. It burned and it took everything in Sylvas not to let go then and there, it was like sticking his mind into an open flame, but he did it again all the same. The flowing sigils of the spell slowed in their ascent up his arm into the portal. The mana didn’t. There was just too much coming from the crystal at his feet, so much raw mana that it was forcing its way up and through him, carrying the spell on, even as he fought back against it.

Everywhere that he managed to slow the spell, it burned. Just as tiny pinpricks of pain had sizzled through his skin as the mana burst out through his channels, now the sigils he had trapped inside him began to rise, searing to the surface, dragging their way up through his flesh. The pain was incomparable. All that he’d suffered through his embodiment had been like a gentle kiss compared to what the mana was doing to him now. And it was just going to keep on going. Every word of the spell was going to burn through him, no matter how hard he tried to fight it or force it back. It didn’t matter if he had the strongest will in the world, he couldn’t stop what had already happened. This spell was going to complete. The Crimson King was going to come through.

Despair couldn’t reach him while he was in the Paradigm, but he knew that it was there, lurking just outside his rational mind. He could release the Paradigm, disrupt the channel that the mana was passing through and hope that it would be enough to stop the spell, but he didn’t believe it would be. The spell-forms would just burn up through him, riding the unstoppable tide of mana up into the sky. I would be too dead to know about it, which might be preferable to still being here when the Crimson King comes through.

The arms of the monster raked across the rooftop now, scattering the mages who had tried to flee into clattering bones and then gulping down the gore into the cracks in its shell. There was no way out for any of them. The magic circle around the tower prevented the other acolytes from even jumping to their death to get away. They were a feast laid out to welcome the Crimson King into the world, and it seemed that the god, monster, or whatever it might be had worked up quite an appetite in its travels.

Sylvas would be the dessert. Left to the end, when he was charred to practically nothing by the magic pouring through him. The chosen one. Chosen to end the world. Chosen to die a fool’s death.

Mira was screaming from where she lay pinned, the god didn’t even seem to have noticed her. One of its great chitinous claws came down close to her, nowhere near to touching, but immediately her skin began to tear. Just being in the presence of the thing was enough to kill. And she was all too close now. First shreds of skin, then a steady spray of blood drew out from her, drifting through the air to be absorbed into the hungering red.

Sylvas couldn’t move. He couldn’t reach out to her. He tore his throat to pieces each time he tried to speak anything but the words of the spell passing through him. She met his gaze across the tower’s top and even in the dim light filtering through from the otherworld he could see the betrayal in her eyes. He had done this to her. As he watched, more and more of her was siphoned away, skin and hair, blood and flesh, until the bare bones on one side of her skull shone out, but still somehow she did not die. Her left hand, the only limb unpinned, reached out towards him. Then she fell limp, and her suffering was over.

All that remained of her swept away on the wind, coiling as dust into the waiting emptiness inside the Crimson King. Everything that she was, everything that she could have been, gone in moments.

His grief couldn’t reach him inside the Paradigm unless he deliberately let it in to influence his clear thoughts, but that was just what he did now. If he was going to die, he deserved to at least die angry.

The anger helped more than he’d ever have expected. The overwhelming pain was still there, the spell-work was still sizzling its way out through his flesh, but now that pain became fuel for his anger, and that anger drove him to do something that a purely rational Sylvas never would have.

Despite all his desperate attempts to stop the magic flowing up his arm, it still did. Up into his palm where it spread out in a glowing pillar to widen the portal. His fingers were deadened and numb from the torrent of mana, but they still obeyed him as he curled them in, searing them on the blasting mana, straining with body and will together to stop it all for just one moment. One moment was all that he needed. The mana rushed up and into him, filling him up to bursting, but for the length of one breath he was able to stop its motion.

He brought his fist down on the crystal.

If there had been any nerves left not burnt away in the chaos of the casting, slamming his fist into a jagged lump of rock probably would have hurt, but now Sylvas only felt the thump reverberating up his arm, like it was happening to someone else, far away. He wondered if he was going into shock.

Shards of the dark crystal tumbled away, fragments of it were embedded in his hand, but he brought it down again all the same.

This time, light burst out from between his curled and blackened fingers, an explosion of raw power as the mana from the crystal was looped back around and delivered to it full force. For a moment, it seemed to have done nothing at all. 

The Crimson King loomed vast and terrible overhead, dozens of its arms already extended through, claws digging down into the solid stone of the tower’s roof as though it were butter, trying to hook in and get a grip solid enough to start dragging itself through. It had no eyes, no head even, so far as Sylvas could see, but all the same he felt the weight of its awareness turning towards him. Pinning him down with the raw power of its attention.

Then the crystal at Sylvas feet, already so overcharged with mana, imploded. All that raw power turned back in on itself caused the crystalized mana to collapse inwards. The vacuum dragged Sylvas off his feet, to his knees, but the sudden end to the mana flow did something stranger still. It dragged the spell back from where it had continued struggling its way out of his hand and inside of him. It wasn’t enough, not nearly enough to undo the summoning or close the portal, but that last agonizing inch of space that would have let the solid bulk of the monster from beyond come through would never arrive.

The Crimson King seemed to know it before Sylvas did. Slamming itself bodily against the white-hot edges of the portal and rebounding over and over. The thunderous impact of its impossibly huge body echoed through the gap, like a drumbeat.

The summoning spell had been dragged back from the edge of completion, but it wasn’t gone. Without the endless tide of mana pushing it out of Sylvas it remained lodged inside him, every sigil of it searing its way out through his arm before dissipating into the air. The final words of the spell that would have doomed the world scarring up from within his flesh.

If the implosion hadn’t brought him to his knees, then the exhaustion would have. Sylvas toppled forward, his bleeding hand and the other, strangely unmarked by everything that had happened thrust out to catch him before he landed face first in the shattered remains of the dark crystal.

His mind and body had been a temple, carefully constructed over the last eight years to house mana, and the spell he had just disrupted, and now that temple felt like it was crumbling apart. Trying to cast a spell so powerful with all of the reinforcements and protections stripped from him had left him wrecked.

He might have been dying, but Croesia would live. He had stopped the thing on the other side of the sky from coming through. He had saved them all.

With a sickening crunch that shook the entire tower, The Crimson King pulled itself through into reality.

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