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Chapter 10


“Of all the aspects of mana there are in the world, there is none rarer than Aether mana. Considered to be the most pure and stable of all the aspects, the uses for these highly coveted motes are nigh limitless. From enchanting, to alchemy, to artifice, to empowering and cleansing one’s body and spirit regardless of affinity, there is quite literally nothing that it can’t be used for. That is if one can find it. For this rare aspect springs forth from only the deepest and most ancient of ley lines our realm has to offer, lingering only for scant heartbeats before either being swept up by life around it, or acquiring whichever dominant aspect exists around it.”

A Treatise on Mana and its Aspects, Markus Tamberland, The Golden Age, 4990

And so Vincent’s first day of adventure began.

Needing only a minute for Theo to gather his things, which included a decently large backpack to carry his eventual purchases, the next thing Vincent knew he was outside taking in the sights of what he had been told was the Everness slums.

Which is exactly what I can see they are, he thought dryly as he took in both the sights and the smells that the outdoors had to offer, neither of which were exactly appealing.

Of the two, it was the sights that caught Vincent’s attention foremost, and that was because of the profound disrepair that he found his surroundings in. The once cobblestone street just outside the clinic was little more than large chunks of gravel beneath his feet, all but eliminating any real benefit an actual road might have brought. Moreover it was a similarity that was shared by all of the other still standing buildings on the street, their faces pockmarked by missing stone and what Vincent was certain was the gratuitous application of violence.

And that didn’t even begin to include the refuse and other rubble that littered the edges of the street practically everywhere else he looked.

What even happened here? Vincent couldn’t help but wonder, the entirely of the street looking somewhere between being abandoned and a warzone.

“I know that look,” Theo’s voice spoke out from behind Vincent, snapping him out of his unexpected surprise. “Welcome to the slums of Everness, wonderful isn’t it?”

“I…uh, I mean…” Vincent started to say, immediately starting to trip over his words as he tried to find the right ones to reply with. Unfortunately after a long pause, he couldn’t find them, eventually deciding on an inelegant, “where is that smell coming from?”

“Oh, that. From where we found you. That smell is the reservoir and the waters that feed it,” Theo replied with a thin smile, his head shifting to indicate something above and behind them, a subtle motion that was enough to prompt Vincent’s head to turn and see the distant shape of an aqueduct above. Or at least that’s what he saw at first, for after a second for his Insight to catch up, he saw a haze of intermixed colors appear in the air surrounding it.

Some living, but mostly dead Shadow, Death, Water, Earth, and Fire mana, Vincent thought as he processed what his Insight was telling him, the dark haze in the distance then expanding outward until it completely filled the air and surrounded him. While having sensed it in an abstract fashion through his Will, seeing it through the aid of his Insight immediately made it feel overwhelming to him as if he were suddenly being smothered. A sensation that quickly had him instructing the soulmeld to reduce it in intensity for the future.

“And all the mana?” He asked a heartbeat later, deciding that this was the perfect time to ask another one of his many questions, waiting a moment before he simply inhaled what living mana there was around him. “Why…why is there so much of it here…and why is so much of it…dead?”

“Ah, we were wondering if you would say anything about that, given that well…er, never mind,” Theo replied as Vincent turned back to look at him, seeing the man cover whatever he was about to say by quickly motioning for him to follow and starting to walk. “How about we start with the easy part, do you remember anything about dark mana? It is what we call this ‘dead’ mana you sense, because whatever spark of energy it once carried is now gone.”

“Uh, no. No I don’t,” Vincent answered back as he moved to accompany Theo, wondering just what he was about to say. Though that wonder was quickly squashed after he nearly tripped over a broken cobblestone, leaving him to focus wholly on where he was putting his feet along the broken road. It was difficult enough that he was suddenly very happy that he had a walking stick to help aid him. “All of it is dark mana?”

“That’s the formal term, yes. As is bright mana for the kind that does still carry the spark. Though there are a bunch of more colorful words for both kinds I’ve no doubt you’ll eventually hear too,” the teenager replied. “It’s also what makes the slums…well, the slums. Though before we start…I need to ask you a question first, one that could be considered a little sensitive to ask, uh, a Fallen, I mean, an Ascendant such as—”

“You won’t offend me, Theo, no matter what you ask,” Vincent cut off in a gentle tone before the man could trip over his words. “What I know about the realm right now wouldn’t be enough to fill one of the smallest potholes on this road.”

“Uh, right, I just wanted to be sure,” the young man replied, chancing a look over towards Vincent. “Well, I suppose there is no easy way to simply ask, but do you remember or can sense what affinity you are? Given your appearance, you look to be a dominant air affinity, and well, if you were a Tempered or higher…then the purity of the mana around you could be a very real concern if you were to draw it in.”

“Uh, my appearance and affinity?” Vincent asked, the last few words being about all he understood of what Theo had just told them. Everything that preceded it might as well have been in a completely different language. “What do you mean by that?”

“Damn, another blind spot it seems,” Theo stated, pausing for a second as he considered how best to continue. “Let’s try another track. Without doing so, mind you, do you feel that you are able to draw in any of the dark mana around us?”

“Uh,” Vincent replied unsure of how he should answer the question, if only because of how bizarre it was. Of course he’d be able to draw in all the mana around him, any Incarnate on the path should be able to. But the fact that Theo had posed the question in the first place made it obvious such a thing maybe wasn’t the case.

Yet at the same time, the question presented an opportunity to ask one of the many questions that Vincent had been looking for an answer for, especially since his far reaching mana sense finally caught a hint of it in the distance. That is before it promptly transformed itself into something else.

“Well, you’re right in that I can draw Air mana. I also feel like I could draw Shadow and I think Life. But there’s another aspect of mana around us I sense too. It’s…Aether mana. Though I only caught a mote or two before it vanished,” he said, the words instantly causing the other man’s eye brows to rise, signaling that Vincent hadn’t quite escaped somehow putting his foot in his mouth.

Really?” Came the surprised reply from the mender. “You can sense Aether mana? Here? That’s…extremely, uh, rare. That and your sense for mana must be truly strong if you could sense so little.”

Vincent sensed that there was perhaps a hidden question in that statement, likely one to do with his status as an Ascendant, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure what it could be before a vaguely nervous look appeared upon Theo’s face as he resumed speaking.

“Uh, right.” He said quickly. “As for your ability to draw on Shadow and Life, that’s not what I expected to hear at all.”

“It…isn’t?” Vincent asked, feeling more confused as ever as they continued to walk. “What do you mean?”

“I mean how you look—oof. Sorry, that’s not what I wanted to say,” Theo answered quickly, sounding exceptionally off balance as the words flew out of his mouth. “Let me start from the beginning and then we can work our way backwards. The reason why I asked you about your affinity is because every living thing has at least one. It is the aspects of mana that they resonate with most and thus are able to draw it into themselves. For myself, I have three affinities, Earth, Life, and Water. My father on the other hand only has two, Shadow and Death.

“Now, if you were to look at both of us,” he continued motioning towards his hair and the whorls that swept out from under it. “You’d be able to tell, roughly, at a glance, the most dominant of the affinities we have.”

“So the fact that I don’t look a bit like your father is unusual?” Vincent went onto ask, the fact that he’d finally gotten an answer as to everyone’s appearance and why they looked the way they did overriding the brief wave of self-consciousness at own look.

“Well, yes, but also no,” Theo replied his speech slowing for a moment as considered his next words. “How you look, or your manamarks as they’re called, are just the most common way that an affinity is expressed and how dominant it is within your body and soul body. And even then, how you use and meld that mana into your soul makes a difference too. Or…at least that’s what the books I’ve read say.”

The young mender paused for a second to shake his head at the tangent he had taken himself on. “Sorry, I’ve gone on a journey, haven’t I? Anyway, the more aspected mana that we absorb into our hearts, bright or dark, the more that it is reflected in our appearance. For you to have the white hair that is commonly associated with an Air affinity could be nothing but luck, you may just in fact have white hair naturally…or…uh, well, it could mean that before your fall, you might have had access to Aether mana. A lot of a lot of Aether mana.”

“I would have?” Vincent queried, struggling to pick which part of the teenager’s statement to ask more questions about first. “Why would that matter?”

“Because Aether mana is the only aspect of mana capable of cleansing manamarks, be they caused from bright or dead mana,” Theo explained as he motioned to a section of his exposed arm where an intricate golden whorl swept across his arm. “But not only that, it is also the only aspect that is capable of reigniting the spark that dark mana has lost, allowing one to either freely channel it once again, or to purge it from one’s body and heart.”

Unfortunately that answer only served to intensify Vincent’s confusion, prompting him to frown as he looked back at Theo.

“Uh, your heart? Do you mean heart like the deepchewer’s and the…other men’s hearts that we recovered?”

“Partially, yes,” Theo nodded as he reached to touch his chest. “Though also not entirely. In this context I mean one’s innate Mana Heart, the source deep within where all mana gathers and lives. What you saw with the other hearts, well, that is what happens after a being with mana is slain. What they have within themselves is vented into the flesh, which happens to always be their heart, and instantly crystalizes it. This is why those things are called Heart Crystals.”

“I…see,” Vincent replied, that particular piece of magic falling into place, especially when compared to the crystalline hearts he’d been given. “I believe I know the Mana Heart as something called a Nexus. Do you happen to know that term?”

“As it happens, I do, though it’s not a common one,” the mender replied as he motioned for Vincent to turn as they came to the end of their street and joined an even larger one that was in much better repair. “I only know it because father made me read a few of his older books, it’s one of the terms that old, very old, Ascendants use. Though it’s not that common anymore.”

“That’s good to know,” Vincent stated, happy that he was starting to make some sort of progress in his understanding of the realm and magic, and that despite any changes from what he remembered there was still at least something familiar to cling to. “And so each person’s heart is…attuned to particular aspect of mana?”

“Er, in a way, though I’m not so sure attuned is the correct word in the sense that it implies choice,” Theo said, half pausing in his explanation to exchange friendly waves with a passing group of people who happened to be walking on the street, each of them displaying visible signs of what Vincent now easily cued in as being the signs of shadow, water, and earth mana. “As you might remember, every living being requires mana to live, their bodies naturally drawing it into themselves from everything to the air and land around them to the food they eat from the first moment they are born and straight to the last moment before they die.”

“Uh, more or less,” Vincent answered back, doing his best to conceal the frown that wanted to spread across his face at the statement. From what his memories told him, it was Essence, the life energy produced by the body and fed to the soul, that was responsible for keeping living beings alive and allowing them to grow, not mana. Rather mana itself was a tool, or if not that exactly, a resource one collected and changed depending on the task at hand. The same went for Virtues, which when combined with Will gave greater intent and purpose to the mana in question.

“Ah, good, that saves us some time then,” Theo replied as they continued to walk, the broken, weather worn streets of the slums around them gradually beginning to improve in quality. “Now when a living thing is born, be it either creature or person, their Mana Heart is yet to be formed and their body holds no affinity to mana. It’s only during the first few years of life that follow afterwards that the body gains an affinity. There are a many theories as to how this happens, but everything I read says that the environment is the leading cause of an affinity. The more of a particular aspect of mana you’re around while you’re young, the more likely you’re to have that gain that affinity. However are exceptions where that doesn’t seem to be quite the case.”

“That makes sense,” Vincent replied slowly as he followed the explanation, pieces starting to come together for him.

It seems that instead of using Aether mana to fuel their Incarnation, they are using aspected mana instead, Vincent thought as he raced through the implications of what Theo had told him. But given the sheer amount of aspected mana in the air, it doesn’t seem that it’s an active choice in what mana they gain an…affinity to. Rather it just seems to be a twist of fate that sets them on a particular path as their bodies naturally absorb whatever ambient mana is nearby, which in turn is passed to their soul, giving it the same affinity.

It was with that realization that a great deal of the world around him suddenly made sense to him, and why all the people he’d seen so far looked the way that they did. It was because the very mana that they were absorbing changed them on a primal level, making them truly embody that aspect as a something akin to a living elemental. 

Essentially, instead of using aspected mana as a spice, to purposefully enhance specific parts of one’s body and soul, they are using it unwittily and completely in place of both Aether mana, Vincent summed up, unsure if he should feel horrified at the drastic change in magic or enraptured by it. For the difference represented a wholly different way of magic than he remembered.

“How does dark mana fit into all of this?” Vincent asked as his racing thoughts came to an end, leaving him to suddenly remember his original question along with something else that Theo had said. “And what did you mean earlier that Aether mana is rare?”

“Ah right, your original question. It’s because Aether mana is not only in incredibly high demand because of what it can do, but also because it is only ever found in places completely devoid of other aspected mana,” Theo said, very clearly happy to show off his bookish knowledge the longer he had a chance to speak. “And given the abundance of aspected mana in our world that is rare. I mean, truly, truly rare. It’s by far the most valuable aspect of mana in our realm and exceptionally more difficult to find naturally than any of the other aspects.”

“I see,” Vincent replied in a soft tone, feeling his insides suddenly go cold. Aether mana was just that rare in Mythranor now? So much in fact that just finding it was a trial in itself? What was it that he sensed a moment earlier then? Regardless of any of answers, it was possibly the worst news he could have gotten given that the entirety of his path depended on vast quantities of Aether mana, especially if he wanted to move beyond the first few stages of Incarnation.

But if any of his inner turmoil showed on his face, Theo didn’t see it, the man effortlessly switching subjects.

“As for your question about dark mana,” he said, once again motioning for Vincent to turn down another street. “That’s a bit more complicated to explain, and one that is I better just show.”

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