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Chapter 11


“It is quite easy to explain to the uneducated masses, who can’t even begin to fathom the full extent of magic’s potential, exactly what the dark mana is. It is the left-over remnant of what once was. A husk of spent potential akin no different than what a pile of ash is to wood. Completely harmless, so long as one doesn’t overexpose themselves to it. As for us Ascendants on the other hand, dark mana is the price of our ascent. More to the point, it is the poison that each and every single one of us race against in our pursuit of perfection, our race to become a Paragon of our aspect. For if we are too slow, if we fail to take advantage of opportunities before us, it will eventually allow the Taint to consume us…and should that happen, well, then all we can hope for is a quick and merciful death at hands our brothers and sisters.”

Ascension, Derrick Woldersin, The Golden Age, 4897

“We’re heading to the reservoir?” Vincent asked as the distant shine of black water came into view.

“We are,” Theo replied, the young man turning to nod at him as they walked. “It’s not far out of our way and I can’t think of a better place to show you what dark mana is like. And so you can see why these slums are what they are.”

It was as ominous a statement as Vincent could receive in the moment, and one that promptly caused him to fall silent, his thoughts racing inwardly.

Why am I suddenly getting a bad feeling about this? He wondered as he mentally braced himself for another shock, still not having gotten over his previous one. Regardless he trusted his body’s reaction and forced himself to pay attention to his surroundings as he stared out towards the lakeside beach that they were rapidly approaching. 

In as much as a sweeping expanse full of rotting garbage and who knew was else upon the waters shoreline could be called a beach.

“Behold the Great Everness Reservoir,” Theo announced as they drew closer, mercifully stopping just short of where all the washed up detritus began. “The solution to and the cause of many problems within our wondrous city.”

Yet as profound as that statement might have been in any other context, Vincent barely processed it as he continued to stare onwards at the reservoir, and by extension, the district surrounding it. Beginning with the most obvious sight, which was not in fact the black, fetid water, but rather the distant escarpment that filled the horizon. Rising up and stretching to both his left and right, the hundred foot or so tall cliff formed a sort of protective bowl around the water and surrounding slums before straightening out and continuing out of sight. 

Moving downwards from there, Vincent’s next item of note was the slums themselves, the dirty, damaged, if not completely shattered buildings all clustered together in a sprawling crescent surrounding the reservoir itself. Continuing as far as Vincent could see down the beach, the quality of the buildings all ranged drastically the further down the beach he went. Those that were closer to him and on the westward side of the reservoir, seemed cleaner and in better repair, with the quality dramatically decreasing the further eastward his gaze traveled.

I wonder why that is, he thought idly as his eyes then landed on what could be argued to be the most interesting feature of the reservoir, that being the brackish waterfall pouring into its center. Arriving by way of the aqueduct that he had seen earlier, the water cascaded down and out from the single thick spar that reached out over the water, supported by several thick pillars of stone. Falling from high up, the very same height that he himself had fallen from, the water left the reservior looking as if it were under a perpetual state of rain, an unseen breeze taking a stream eastwards where the least appealing houses lay. Ah, that’s why.

But while that was one particular puzzle solved, it wasn’t long before Vincent soon discovered another as his eyes followed the water, his eyes landing upon the dozen or so boats that he saw sailing across the reservoir’s surface. All of whom contained a plethora of people visibly working the waters with what he instantly recognized as magic, drawing up huge orbs of blackened sludge from the depths. 

“What… what are they doing over there on those boats?” Vincent asked when his mind caught up to the presence, or at least the portion of it that wasn’t informing him of the thick, swirling miasma of dark, lifeless mana that hovered over and also permeated the waters. 

“They’re cleaning the waters of filth and dark mana,” Theo explained, having remained silent for the time it took Vincent to take in the place. “The people that you see out there are called Purifiers. They’re the ones responsible for handling this mess you see before you. Well, them and the slimes beneath the surface that we can’t see.”

“Slimes?” Vincent repeated, turning to glance over at Theo with  growing confusion. “I thought we came here so you could tell me about dark mana?”

“We are, and it’s all connected, I promise,” he answered back while staring out over the lake. “Anyway, to start things off, your guess before was right on the mark. Dark mana is mana that has been used in magic, but in a way that emptied it out of whatever energy that made it what it was, thus leaving what my tutors always called a remnant behind. Kind of like the bones from an animal, or the leftover ash from burnt wood.”

“Except that the left over mana isn’t as harmless,” Vincent stated, finding the description rather apt when compared to what he sensed.

“No. No it isn’t. And that is because unlike bright mana, dark mana is very, very, difficult to purge if it is drawn into one’s body,” Theo continued. “It clings to one’s mana channels, heart, flesh, and soul, practically forever if it’s absorbed and not cleansed with Aether mana. That was why I warned you against drawing mana, for if a Dormant, that is someone who hasn’t awakened as an Ascendant, draws in too much of the Tainted mana, they will find it harder and harder to channel mana, until they simply can’t anymore. As for an Ascendant however…the effects are, worse. Much worse. Especially if they absorb enough to become Tainted.”

The tone behind that final word was ominous enough that even if Vincent hadn’t been looking at Theo as he spoke to see his face turn into a scowl he could have been able to sense the weight that the term carried. One that unless Vincent was mistaken, carried a great deal of loss and pain to it.

“And I take becoming Tainted is a bad thing for an Ascendant.” Vincent said, his words coming out as a statement rather than a question.

“Extremely so,” Theo stated with a nod. “For in addition to losing the ability to channel mana, Ascendants also feel its effects more readily upon their body. At first, it isn’t all that impactful, a growth on the skin, odd changes in one’s hair, or teeth, or other minor afflictions within the body. But that quickly changes the more that the Taint sets in. A good example of a serious case would be like what you’ve seen Norin bearing.”

“Norin?” Vincent repeated with surprise, instantly recalling the dwarf and that he hadn’t been present today. “He is an Ascendant?”

“He was one,” Theo affirmed with a nod, his voice sounding particularly tight as he spoke. “Many years ago, when I was just born… he reached the point just shy of becoming fully tainted. Enough that the pain it caused him, physically and spiritually, became too much for him to bear and he was forced to make a decision, give up his Ascent or to seek the mercy death offered all Ascendants who get so far. That he’s here at all means he chose the former.”

“That’s because the dark mana that he absorbed started to infuse too much of his soul, isn’t it?” Vincent asked, piecing together the most obvious conclusion. “It’s the reason why he can’t talk, isn’t it? The mana he absorbed into his soul, possibly his melds if he had any, was reflected in his body, causing it to turn to stone.”

“That’s right,” Theo answered with a nod. “Fortunately Norin chose to end his Ascent before the taint progressed any further. Had he not…well, then his condition would have worsened and worsened until he was completely petrified, assuming he even got so far before a vital organ or even his mind itself gave out.”

“And the only cure for that is Aether mana?” Vincent asked, his attention having been drawn away from Theo towards the people out on the waters.

“A great, if not near impossible quantity of it, yes,” Theo answered in a soft tone. “Well, I suppose near impossible for people like us down deep in the slums here. For Ascendants with means, such as those who are a part of powerful dynasties, guilds, or other such things, I imagine the cost is merely expensive, but within their reach. Or I certainly believe so given how many of their kind don’t have so much as a stray blemish upon them.”

“That…that is hard to hear.” Vincent stated in as flat a tone as he could manage, clearly picking up on the anger in Theo’s words, an anger that he wasn’t surprised to find that he shared. However where the apprentice mender’s rage was directed towards the upper class Ascendants, Vincent’s was directed towards the man who had caused it all, feeling burning inferno of rage rise up at what Malvis’s actions had wrought. 

Damn that man and his greed, he thought simply. If it wasn’t for him, and whatever he was expecting to find in the Beyond, none of this would have happened.

It was thought that Vincent found himself stewing in for the next short while as he and Theo silently looked over the water, each watching the distant purifiers continue their work as they cleansed the waters of mana and garbage. Eventually, after he’d had a chance to regain his composure, Theo resumed talking, his far from calm, but this time much more even.

“Anyway,” he began while waving a hand at the water. “It’s because of the problems that dark mana can cause that we try to collect it all in one place. If you were to look close at the aqueduct, the one up there and all the smaller ones in the city above, you’d see that there are runes designed to draw nearby mana into the water running through it. All of which then flows down through the city here into the reservoir where different runes and artifice work to keep the majority of it in place.”

“Most of it? Why not all of it?” Vincent immediately asked, unable to help but suddenly be pulled out of his anger at the news of such large scale artifice. Especially since that the longer they stood at the shoreline the more often he caught a hint of Aether mana, a mote or two flaring into existence before it almost immediately transformed itself into one of the countless ambient elements. 

“Because of the Disaster,” Theo replied, his voice taking on a sad, mournful hint to it. “The city built the reservoir shortly after I was born in hopes of better containing both dark mana and managing the city’s wastes. It was supposed to a huge, important project. But it apparently something went wrong and there was a magical backlash. A really, really, big one. It…it killed a lot of people. Including my mother.”

Vincent’s eyes immediately went wide at that statement, his head swiveling to look at Theo and seeing that he was staring blankly out over the water. 

“I’m sorry to hear that Theo,” he said quickly as he caught the young man’s attention and motioned for them to move on. “I didn’t know. We can leave now if you’d like.”

“No…no that’s okay,” Theo replied with a shake of his head, eyes coming back into focus. “I’m fine, really. Usually I don’t even think about it. It’s been…well, it’s been my entire life so far. I guess today is one of the days that it isn’t.”

He paused to wave a hand in front of him as if he was clearing a bad smell before continuing, “but yes, it was that blast that turned the slums into the mess that you see now. Worse even, whatever happened also killed the lead artificers that were in charge of the project, so the city couldn’t even finish whatever it was they were trying to build here. They fixed what they could and then…left it like this.”

“I see,” Vincent said as he turned to look back at the reservoir with new eyes and extended his senses out towards the waters, wondering if he could get a sense of the runes and other artifice that Theo had mentioned, if only to give him better context. Unfortunately that hope died a quick death when all he was able to pick up was another short lived burst of Aether mana in the distance, the thick cloud of dark mana hovering over the water masking anything else there might have been to detect. “What you said about the runes to collect mana sounds interesting though, do you think they would have examples of them in the library?”

“Uh, that’s a good question.” Theo answered back, a thoughtful expression appearing on his face. “I’m not actually sure. Probably not? While the archives have a great deal of knowledge available to all who want it, they do restrict access to higher levels of magic. Likely part on the account of safety as well as not wanting to upset the guilds who profit off such knowledge.”

“That…makes sense,” Vincent replied with disappointment, even if he couldn’t quite refute the logic. While his memories might be fragmented, incredibly so, they weren’t gone far enough for him not to understand the dangers of untrained or over confident people using magic that they didn’t fully understand. “Maybe they’ll have something less advanced for me to look at, if only to get my .”

“Maybe,” Theo agreed before going back to motion towards the waters, resuming where he’d left off earlier. “It’s with all the dark mana here, all in mostly collected in one place, that the slimes the Purifiers drag beneath the waters can devour it, along with all of the other garbage you see. Then, when the slime has drawn in enough to become fully saturated, it is taken away and slain, thereby condensing all of the dark mana that it absorbed into a Heart Crystal, which is then in turn sold in bulk. Likely to those with steady supplies of Aether mana to rekindle the spent mana cheaper than it would be to find it naturally elsewhere. Regardless, it’s a cycle that keeps both the dark mana and the wastes of the city from getting  truly out of control.”

“All while turning a profit for everyone involved,” Vincent said in a tone that came out far drier than he initially intended, leaving him staring out and over the water at the hard working purifiers eventually remembering something else that Theo had told him. “None of those people out there are Ascendants are they?”

“Hm? Oh, no. No they are not,” Theo answered with a shake of his head. “They are Dormants, like myself and father. Staying as a Dormant is the only real protection there is against absorbing too much mana to be afflicted by the Taint. That’s also why the Deepchewer was such a big problem until you came along. There aren’t many Dormants that have enough mana to do more than try and scare the beast off, let alone kill it. Nor are there many untainted Ascendants that live down here, let alone ones that are strong enough, or would take the risk to kill it. The monster would have kept being a problem until the taint took it or the purifiers raised enough money to pay someone powerful enough to come and hunt it down. Even now, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until someone from the upper city throws an unwanted pet or experiment into the aqueducts and we have a new terror to deal with.”

“I…I…I think I’m ready to get moving again,” Vincent said, nearly speechless as he weighed Theo’s words against what he saw, his mind easily filling in what blanks that had been left unspoken. From the context of what Vincent knew about Incarnation, and what the other man had referenced twice now, the stage referred to as Awakening had remained the same over the past millennia. It was the first true step in one’s path that marked them as truly becoming an Incarnate, their souls awakening from their slumber and allowing the creation of soulmelds.

Which means that if people want to be safe from poisoning themselves to death with dark mana, they must give up any hope of truly wielding magic, Vincent thought bitterly as Theo motioned for the two of them to resume their journey without another word. Which in turns makes them not only too weak and too poor to resist the people who choose to pursue it, but also need to live in worry of what they do. The people who not only chase the promise of power that Incarnation, or Ascendance as I should start calling it, brings. But also the wealth and opportunity they horde from the others in the realm as they pursue it. It is…twisted. Sickening. It…it isn’t what I…what we all fought for. Wait, where did that thought come from?

Hitting him with all the subtly of a hammer between the eyes, Vincent found himself taken aback by the renewed source of rage that surged through him, the emotion then almost instantly masked by the wave of confusion that soon accompanied it. So far any and all motivations or goals that he might have had in his previous life were a mystery to him, save that he was reasonably certain he’d been trying to make things better. Or if not that, then keep things from getting worst. Yet as he looked out at the world with fresh eyes after seeing what his efforts had wrought, he couldn’t help but feel a profound sense of failure.

Is…is all of this my fault? He asked himself, the thought all but consuming him as he and Theo walked in silence through the slums, rejoining the main road they had departed and started to journey uphill into what was very clearly the wealthier and cleaner parts of the city. Letting his mind stew as he replayed the events of his fragmented memory while simultaneously taking in his new surroundings, the dirty, damaged tenements and buildings gradually giving way to better townhomes, Vincent couldn’t help but wonder if he could have done something different during his battle with Malvis.

It was a question that in any other circumstance would have likely completely consumed him, sending his mind spiraling. However before it could, a flash from imminent danger Vincent’s Insight interrupted him, slicing through his thoughts like a hot knife through butter.

Wait, what’s what? He thought in an instant panic, his body instinctively snapping in the direction of a plain, unassuming storefront from which he had sensed a sudden surge of mana from.

A storefront that then promptly erupted into a conflagration of lightning and fire.

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